Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Captain Marvel Part 2 – I Really Love This Character!

So, after my Shazam review, I went back to my collection to read some Captain Marvel comics again. I came away with a realization: I’m a bigger Captain Marvel fan than I thought I was. I was always aware of the character peripherally and liked him, but after I re-read some Golden Age reprints of Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, along with Jerry Ordway’s 1994 origin, and the Shazam: Greatest Stories Ever Told collection, I also realized that I need to hunt down more Captain Marvel. I love this character.

My other realization is that DC largely doesn't know how to handle him anymore. A term I’ve heard used to describe Captain Marvel recently is “zany.” Captain Marvel is not “zany" at all. He's a serious character in a fantasy world... "Whimsy" is a far better word to describe this character. Geoff Johns' New 52 take on him was not great. But that's not saying much, the New 52 wasn't kind to any DC character. DC has only really done a little bit with the real Captain Marvel, actually a separate character from Johns' "Shazam", since the 2011 reboot. The “Shazam!” version had a short-lived series in 2018 (again by Geoff Johns with artist Dale Eaglesham) and as of 2o22, Mary recently starred in a limited series, New Champion of Shazam!, that was pretty good, making her the new Captain Marvel/"Champion of Shazam"! DC has also used his real name, Captain Marvel, post the New 52 run which proves that DC has not lost all common sense. Somebody at DC gets it. There are writers and artists who are fans of Captain Marvel and understand his mythology. If only they could give fans an ongoing series that lasts, something that understands the characters as strongly as Grant Morrison's Thunderworld Adventures #1. I fear that, because of the moderate success of the Shazam! movie, that they're going to double down with that take on the character. I hope not. I hope that Captain Marvel can retain his fun, whimsical tone and have his true monicker restored.

I think, if you're a fan from way back, you'll find something to enjoy that’s Captain Marvel related up until the 2o11 Geoff Johns' stories. DC has done some excellent stuff with the franchise since the 1970s. Despite what C.C. Beck thought, the Bronze Age Captain Marvel run was pretty good, especially the work of Denny O'neil and E. Nelson Bridwell. The Roy Thomas/Tom Mandrake origin from 1987 was not bad as a story... just tonally confused and perhaps overly complicated. I think, if you like the New 52 Shazam!, that’s great! More power to you! I hope that run fosters a love for the character and inspires you to go back and enjoy the original stories, and then get into Jerry Ordway's stuff, and definitely check out Shazam! The Power of Hope.


Hopefully too, we'll get more Shazam reprints. I’d love a new edition of The Monster Society of Evil, the Golden Age story (perhaps with a disclaimer the way WB did with some of its old cartoons) … Depending on who you ask, this story may be the greatest Golden Age story ever written and drawn. I think it's one of the best, despite its racist and problematic elements. That's the problem with the Golden Age though, isn't it? By virtue of the fact that many superheroes debuted during World War II, and comic books were born in the late 1930s, racism, war propaganda, and rampant misogyny were pervasive. I still think it's essential for Captain Marvel fans to experience that story. The Jeff Smith retelling of that story has a large audience, and it’s a fantastic introduction to Captain Marvel for new readers, but, for my money, the Golden Age story is meatier and has a lot more to offer in terms of classic Cap stories and adventure.     

Of course, there are many fans today who only read modern comics. If that's the case, you can't really do any better than the Jerry Ordway run on Power of Shazam! It ran for 47 issues, plus one annual, which can usually be found in fine condition (or better) in comics bins for 50 cents per issue. 

For my money, the Justice League episode, Clash, is the best portrayal of Captain Marvel outside of comics. I also love the DC Showcase short with him in it. That's a Billy Batson that I want to watch! 

Say what you will about the movie, but the most positive thing to come out of it is that Captain Marvel is getting more exposure and is making new fans discover him and older fans, like myself, rediscover their love of the character and his world. Yeah, I like the Shazam movie for what it is, but am disappointed that it wasn’t faithful to Captain Marvel. Regardless of a movie misfire, only good things can only come from reading the adventures of Billy Batson and his family. 

Monday, October 3, 2022

Shazam (2019) – Review and Analysis


I recently watched the 2o19 Shazam film, again, because the first time I saw it… I didn't know what to make of it. I’ve read a lot of the original Bill Parker/Otto Binder/C.C. Beck Golden Age stories, some of DC’s 1970s revival by Denny O'neil and Elliot Maggin et al, Paul Dini/Alex Ross’ Power of Hope, Jeff Smith’s remake of the classic Golden Age story, The Monster Society of Evil, Jerry Ordway’s Power of Shazam!, Judd Winick’s Superman-Shazam: First Thunder, and Grant Morrison's Thunderworld #1. Originally, the Captain Marvel character was a vaguely separate identity from Billy, though sometimes they shared thoughts and were implied, at times, to be the same person. In the 1980s, the underwhelming and poorly received New Beginning storyline—by Roy and Dan Thomas with art by Tom Mandrake—made Billy and the Captain a single person. Jerry Ordway’s wonderful reintroduction of the mythos in 1994 followed suit. Billy Batson is Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel is Billy Batson.

On a technical level, 2019’s Shazam is a beautiful film. The special effects are perfect. The lighting and the set design is stellar. The wizard SHAZAM looks incredible, as does the Rock of Eternity. I would have preferred Captain Marvel's costume to be closer to the 18th century Prussian soldier uniform that he has worn in a lot of the comics, as opposed to a big red onesie. Still, this film is a visual feast! The soundtrack (at least the main orchestral title by Ben Wallfisch) is fitting of a 1940s Parker/Binder/Beck story and is absolutely inspiring: one of the better superhero themes of modern cinema. 

The overall story/plot is engaging and a relatively tidy 21st century update on the Captain Marvel/Shazam mythology. Where the film suffers is in characterization… they have renamed Captain Marvel into Shazam! The legal difficulties with Marvel Comics DO NOT technically forbid DC from calling the character Captain Marvel inside a work (comics, cartoons, books, films, etc.). All comics, films, packaging etc. must dub ONLY THE TITLE: SHAZAM! Because DC owns the Captain Marvel copyright... Marvel owns the Captain Marvel trademark... And trademark is a brand, not a copyright. So, why they didn’t call Billy Captain Marvel in the movie while marketing the film as Shazam! is because DC has decided (since 2o11) to play it safe and rename the good Captain, Shazam! But that’s the wizard’s name. It kinda defeats the purpose of the whole concept, in my opinion. Again, DC DOES HAVE THE LEGAL RIGHT to call the character Captain Marvel as long as the title/branding of the work is Shazam!

This film is based on the 2o11, New 52, comic book run by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, which reinvents and reboots the Marvel Family completely… as an adaptation of those comics, maybe this movie works… I never read those stories. I don’t think Geoff Johns understands Captain Marvel’s character. Nevertheless, I was entertained when I watched this movie. Warners made a funny, charming adventure flick… however, a lot of the window dressing has changed. There is no Fawcett City in this universe; it's placed in Philadelphia, PA. Characterization of Billy in his Cap (sorry, Shazam!) form is rather obnoxious and resembles very little of the Captain Marvel character or the Marvel Family. Captain Marvel is supposed to have the Wisdom of Solomon. IF the adult hero must have a mind of a 14- or 16-year-old boy, make him a mature 14- to 16-year-old boy. The whimsy and humor of Captain Marvel stories is not supposed to come from the characters themselves, but from the situations. At any rate, the point of this film seems to be that unheroic characters (like Billy Batson) learn to become heroic. Fair enough. But they don’t really get Sivana exactly right either. He's more of a genius tycoon, rather than a thwarted scientist. Oh well! And why does Captain Marvel (Shazam!) have lightning powers? I do remember him having hypnotic powers in the Golden Age, briefly… but I don't think he could ever shoot lightning from his fingers. Weird!

There’s a lot to love about the general tone and plot. The foster kids (Freddy Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Bromfield/Mary Marvel, the other foster kids) are all adorable and charming. The film is well acted. I just think the characterization of Captain Marvel/Shazam is not what a Captain Marvel/Shazam movie should be. I’m a little sad because I’m a fan… somewhere in my head is a Captain Marvel movie that has the reverence and verisimilitude of Richard Donner’s Superman! Maybe the sequel will improve things? Fingers crossed!  

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Defining the Ages!


In an effort to pin down the various ages of comic books, I recently conspired with some fellow fans online. I think we did a fairly good job of delineating the events that define the various ages, what it means for the industry and comic book history as a whole. While it may seem pointless to some—and impossible to others—to try to define the ages of comics, it can be fun to examine history and the trends that each age brought to the comics medium.

If 1938 is the starting point, with the publication of Action Comics #1—the first appearance of Superman—and the first comic book, it only seems fair to ask what came before? Well, as far back as the 19th century, adventure fiction came in the form of dime novels, stories featuring heroic protagonists—everything from private detectives and cowboys to swashbuckling pirates. After that came the pulp magazines, which gave us the superhero prototypes like The Shadow, Doc Savage, and Zorro. Superheroes like Superman are outgrowths of pulp heroes but also reactions to characters in the comic strips like The Yellow Kid (the first comic ever?), Thimble Theatre, Dick Tracy, and The Phantom (who is probably the first fully-realized superhero). The era that starts with the beginning of the comic strip and up until Superman has sometimes been labeled "The Platinum Age."

The Golden Age was an era when superheroes took on the role of moral crusaders, showcasing their spectacular powers and feats of strength in a wave of patriotic war-time fervor, a black and white worldview that defined the period. The superhero concept was successful for the first half of the 1940’s, but, after World War II, began to lose steam and die out. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were the only characters to see continuous publication while the rest of the industry relied on westerns, detectives, horror, and romance (until the horror and crime books led to the Comics Code). Between the Golden and Silver Ages, there is sometimes a distinction... a roughly ten-year period (1946 to 1955) that connects the two... This is called The Atomic Age. Then, in 1956, editor Julius Schwartz, with Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino revived The Flash in Showcase #4. This is where the Silver Age began.

The Silver Age ushered in an era of worldbuilding with the revival of superheroes. Like The Flash, many Golden Age heroes got updated for the Atomic Age: Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Atom. Heroes also formed a new team, an update on The Justice Society of the Golden Age, with The Justice League. This is the era that most modern superhero mythology is based on. This is where the DC Universe springs from. This is when the Marvel Age was born too, with the publication of Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, itself a reaction to DC’s popular superheroes. Marvel helped to solidify the Silver Age with its more developed storytelling and even bolder science fiction concepts, pointing the way to the Bronze Age.  

Even though superhero stories became generally more sophisticated by the late 1960’s, thanks to an influx of college-aged readers, the Bronze Age is usually recognized as starting in 1973 with a monumental death. Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, perished at the hands of The Green Goblin in Amazing Spider-man #121. This momentous issue seemed to signal a new trend in superhero storytelling: amping up the drama and pathos of the characters, their lives, and their world. Real world events began to shape comics even more and the age of social relevance was born. The landmark series, Green Lantern/Green Arrow by Denny O’neil and Neal Adams is the culmination of this. By the early 1980’s superhero stories were becoming far more engaging than they’d ever been, with titles like Uncanny X-men and the seeds of the Indie comics boom being planted, pointing to an era when the envelope would be pushed to even more intense heights.

The Modern Age is often cited as beginning with the publication of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal work, Watchmen in 1986. But the Modern age can be broken down into several distinct periods. 1986 to about 1992 is sometimes called the beginning of the Iron Age. 1992 through the late 1990's is often called “The Dark Age.” The stories of this period seemed to learn the  wrong lessons from the more sophisticated work of the 1980’s. The writing wasn’t as refined but the grit and edginess was aped in a shallow way. This period reflected a desperate attempt to be as relavant as the best known works of the previous decade but ultimately was an overblown, reactionary mess. It was a bad time for the industry, but there was still a lot of fun to be had. Marvels by Alex Ross comes to mind, as do the six oversized DC superhero graphic novels by Paul Dini and Alex Ross, Superman's triangle era, Hellboy, and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come and Flash work.

Some have said that, in the early 2000’s, the Iron Age gave way to the Mercury Age. Are we still in that age? I don’t know, but I’ve often heard it said that we can’t define our current age historically until we're long past it. Either way, several shifts define the Post-Dark Age 21st century. Once the Marvel films started being made in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the comics began to shift away from the grim-and-gritty era and become something new. Perhaps as a reaction to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns stories became decompressed. Decompression became the in vogue way of writing comics. Disney bought Marvel and gave birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU) which has arguably affected comics throughout the entire industry. Some call this the “Cinematic Age.”

In 2011, DC rebooted their universe again with the New 52 line, an ill-fated project that faded into the much better Rebirth era. Marvel has done several soft reboots too, as a reaction to DC but also as a way to make their comics more accessible to a larger audience. Comics seem to have now become an unbroken continuity of decompressed stories (with some exceptions of course),  shaped partly by the mass appeal of the film and TV adaptations and partly by the evergrowing popularity of the indie books. The Indie scene has had some fantastic successes like The Walking Dead and Saga too.


While the separation of the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages are generally agreed to come down to issue numbers and specific events/stories, the Modern Age doesn’t seem to have such clear markers. Perhaps there can be no definitive way to measure the modern period because it hasn’t been as clearly specified. It just seems too broad a period to define, so far.

Monday, May 2, 2022

A look at the various cuts of Superman: The Movie

I recently watched all the officially released versions of Superman: The Movie as well as “The Final Cut” fan-edit. I came away realizing that the Special Edition is the best version to watch.
The theatrical cut is the tightest version of the film. Honestly, with the Special Edition available since 2001, I rarely watch the theatrical version anymore. It was a nice revisit as this is the cut I grew up with. I understand it’s the preferred version for many fans but those added scenes in the Special Edition have spoiled me and now I just feel like something's missing from this cut.
The “Special Edition” acts as Richard Donner's Director's Cut and, it’s my favorite version to watch. Donner himself has mentioned that this is his preferred edition of the film as well. It features an additional 8 minutes of footage, including new Krypton footage, added dialogue, and the now infamous trap sequences (machine guns, flamethrowers, and a freezing chamber) before Superman enters Luthor’s lair. For me, the added footage enhances the film because it gives us more scenes of Christopher Reeve without being superfluous, and the color grading is enhanced as well. The pacing remains tight and we get more of the movie.
The “Extended Edition”, released on Blu-ray, is the 1981 television cut. This 3-hour-and-8-minute version of the film was the original cut of the film in late 1977 before being re-edited for theatrical release. It first aired cut in two parts as a 2-night event on the ABC network. This version is more commonly called the "Salkind International TV Cut." This cut adds some amazing additional footage of Superman flying that should have been included in the Special Edition, in my opinion. Other than that, it’s a slog to get through. So much unnecessary footage slows the pacing, including whole scenes of added dialogue, and some of the added footage needs to be further color corrected to match the rest of the remastered film. It’s great to watch at least once, or maybe twice, to satisfy curiosity and see what was left out of the theatrical cut, but ultimately, it's not the ideal version. Most of the added scenes don’t really add anything to the film.
The “Final Cut” is a fan-edit by Kathryn Ross, a freelance film editor. This cut of the film runs 2 hours, 56 minutes and incorporates most of the Extended Cut footage while also digitally enhancing or altering many of the effects shots and adding some neat flourishes like added planetary effects in the opening credits. I like this edit much better than the Extended Cut as it is much tighter and the enhanced visual effects add a lot to their respective scenes. Changes in color grading enhance the colors of some scenes and the audio mix has been altered in places. This altered cut even incorporates the opening Daily Planet scene from Superman II: The Donner Cut as a Post-Credit scene. For anyone who may be new to fan edits, there are many different edits of this film. Kathryn Ross' edit is probably the best fan edit of the film. 

Because Superman: The Movie is the best superhero movie ever made, and the grandaddy of all comic book movies, all of these versions offer a fun experience. Each cut adds something that enhances the original theatrical version. The weakest of these remains the “Extended Cut” because of its pacing issues. The “Final Cut” is gorgeous, an admirable attempt at restoring and honoring the film. Donner's “Director's Cut,” a.k.a. the Special Edition, remains the best version. If someone wants to watch this movie, I’d recommend they see each of these cuts, but for my money, the Special Edition is the definitive version.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Iron Giant (1999) - Review and Analysis

The Iron Giant, for me, is not just one of the greatest animated films ever made. I consider it one of the greatest movies of all time. It does everything a great film should do. It expertly delivers its themes, is well-paced, and makes you feel for the characters. It's the kind of film that can only happen with minimal studio interference, or letting a director and their team do exactly what they need to do to make a great movie.

Based on, or inspired by, the 1968 children's book,
The Iron Man: A Children's Story In Five Nights, by British Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant was the result of Warner Brothers trying to compete with the success of Disney. Towards the end of the Disney Renaissance, the revival that started with films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Warner Brothers had tried several times to keep up with their rival's animation success, delivering mediocre film after mediocre film. Finally, in 1999, Warners delivered The Iron Giant, a period piece steeped in Cold War era hysteria. It's a tribute to the Atomic Age that tells the story of friendship between Hogarth, a young kid from New England, and a mysterious, giant robot. Hogarth finds the mechanical monster while playing in the woods. In steps Kent Mansley (he works for the government) to spy on Hogarth and ultimately try to capture his new friend. Along the way, we meet Dean McCoppin, a beatnik sculpture artist, who helps hide the Giant when the authorities get too close. By the end of the film, the Giant saves the town of Rockwell from the military's missile assault and, at the very end, the Giant's pieces begin reassembling themselves. Whether or not there was setup for a sequel is a good question. Personally, I'm glad we never saw one. A sequel to such a near-perfect film might only tarnish its legacy.      

The movie had been in development, at least since 1991, when Don Bluth's studio had eyed adapting Ted Hughes novel, but ultimately turned it down. Brad Bird, who had been looking to do a feature saw The Iron Giant as a perfect opportunity. The director reworked the novel into a new concept, pitched it to Warners and the project was greenlit in 1997. However, by the time it was released, despite winning many awards and receiving widespread critical acclaim, The Iron Giant delivered a bomb at the box office. Virtually no marketing campaign existed for the movie. Apparently, the studio had pulled back on promotion after the dismal failure of other movies like Quest for Camelot. Of course, like all classics that don't perform well, The Iron Giant found its great success on home video. 

Now, what makes this movie so great? Well, the story's highly engaging, and the animation is superb. But it's really the astounding voice cast that brings the characters and situations to life. Eli Marienthal plays Hogarth as a wide-eyed, enthusiastic, happy-go-lucky kid. Jennifer Anniston plays Hogarth's overworked and skeptical mom. Harry Connick Jr. plays Dean. Christopher McDonald plays Mansley to a T. John Mahoney is excellent as the annoyed General Rogard. Vin Diesel was an inspired choice for the giant. Even though he delivers few lines, Diesel's deep vocals deliver a na├»ve, innocent performance that makes you feel for the giant. Each character is so well conceived that its easy to forget that this is supposed to be a "family film."  

If you haven't watched this in a long time, well, there's no time like the present. Like my favorite comic book movies, this is one of those films I can watch anytime and it always puts me in a good mood. It's a great little film, and certainly the best animated film of the 90's, in my opinion. Great for kids and adults alike. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Wonder Woman Deserves Better

I've always been frustrated with how DC Comics, their corporate arm, and some of their creators treat Wonder Woman. Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, is one of DC's Trinity... the 3rd marquee character for DC, behind Superman and Batman. And yet, Superman has iconic, nameable, well-written and well-drawn stories in every decade of his publishing career. Batman too. The amount of Batman and Superman comics and merchandise that get reprinted or released, then worshipped and gushed all over by fandom, compared to Wonder Woman, is insane. She deserves that too. DC needs to reprint her best stuff, decade by decade and keep her best stories in print.

You can name creators from every decade, every era who left important marks on Superman/Batman (Seigel/Shuster, the Weisenger Era with Curt Swan, Denny O'neil/ Cary Bates/ Elliot Maggin, Alan Moore, John Byrne etc. for Superman; Finger/Kane, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Carmine Infantino in the "New Look" era, Frank Robbins, O'neil/Adams, Mike Barr, Frank Miller, Alan Moore again etc. for Batman). These 2 characters have exciting, recommendable stories from every time period in comic book history.

Wonder Woman has just as long a history... but it's not nearly as rich. There are great Wonder Woman stories to be sure, but they start with George Perez' run, post-Crisis, then go to Messner-Loebs then John Byrne's run and on and on. Bill Marsden, Diana's creator, had a good run on Wonder Woman, despite his preoccupation with BDSM. But that was in the 1940's, at her beginnings. Can anyone name a run or story from the 50's to the 70's that's as definitive to Diana as "Kryptonite Nevermore" is for Superman or "The Ra's Al Ghul Saga" is for Batman? Unless you count her noteworthy time in the 70's where she had her powers removed -- noteworthy because it's awful -- I don't think her presence is as great as her historical importance makes her out to be. If I'm wrong, I'll gladly take any recommendations for a Wonder Woman run or story between Marsden and Perez that are as iconic as Batman: Year One or Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow

The Wonder Woman legacy needs to improve. She's always fared well in cartoons and other media. Her TV show from the 70's has seen a resurgence in popularity. The Justice League cartoons fostered many new fans from my generation. Perhaps it's because I'm a comics reader first, but I just want to see Wonder Woman be as popular in her original medium and in the reprint market as her two main counterparts are. Someone at DC needs to mine the DC Archives and put out a decent trade/hardcover/omni of the best Wonder Woman stuff. She just simply doesn't have that dynamic history of amazing stories that the two other marquee characters do. Why is that? Is she harder to write? Are her values and the ideas she represents out of vogue? I certainly hope neither is the case. It might be that she's a deeper character with more cerebral themes than the bat-themed vigilante or the man from Krypton. Whatever the case, fans seem to point to three relatively modern runs that are definitive for Diana Prince: the work of George Perez, Greg Rucka, and Gail Simone.

It was my hope that, with Diana getting her shot at the Big Screen, DC would pivot hard for Wonder Woman and celebrate her history. There have been a few reprints recently... but that's all thanks to the movie. Diana's time for reverence and celebration has been a longtime coming. 

I love Wonder Woman and wish DC would milk her for all she's worth, at least as much as they've done with Superman and Batman. She's a great character and she deserves to be recognized as such. If it takes a Hollywood blockbuster and media exposure, in an age of superhero films, for her to gain prominent significance, so be it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

DC Vs Marvel: A Look At The Big 2 Through the Decades

The Marvel/DC rivalry has become all the rage since the Marvel films started outperforming the DC movies in the last decade. Here, I'm gonna examine some comic book history, taking each company decade by decade, to try to determine who has made a bigger impact. 

For me, the 1940s belong to National Allied Publications (better known as DC Comics) solely because of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and what would become prototypes for the DC stable, the Justice Society. Timely Comics (Marvel of the Golden Age) didn't have much great work beyond Namor, The Human Torch, and Captain America. The Captain America stories by Simon/Kirby are their greatest triumph, but reading them today, they get repetitive beyond the first few stories. Unlike the best Golden Age DC stories, the Timely books don't really compare. Sure, Timely had some interesting sci-fi concepts, but books like Batman, Superman, The Spectre, and Sandman were much better written. But outside the books, both companies started branding in other media. Superman and Batman got movie serials. Captain America got a serial. There were radio shows, toys, the Fleischer Superman cartoons, all kinds of merchandise. Superheroes exploded in pop culture and were everywhere.

Clearly the best publisher of the 50's was infamous publisher, EC Comics, but Atlas (as Marvel was known by the 50's) had some interesting non-superhero books compared to National, and given that all National/DC had was the Trinity for the first half of the decade (given that most superheroes had died out), 
I would love to give the 1950's to Atlas for the Return of The Human Torch and several good sci-fi/horror titles like Astonishing in the pre-code era. However, Julius Schwartz brought in Barry Allen as The Flash and the Silver Age began. It was the revival of superheroes, with a new Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Atom. On top of that, DC editor, Whitney Elsworth, helped introduce The Adventures of Superman on TV, so National/DC wins for me.

The 60's goes to Marvel... for obvious reasons (the Marvel Age). The Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four run is still enjoyed decades later. Same with Lee/Ditko/Romita Spider-man. Even though National started to get better at the edge of the decade, their output during the 60's is not as fondly remembered as Marvel. There was still some great stuff. The New Look era of Batman debuted under the pen of Carmine Infantino. The Flash had some great stories too. Gardner Fox did some of his best work at DC during this decade, writing everything from Hawkman, Batman, The Flash, and The Atom. The Batman TV show debuted in '66 and became one of Batman's greatest legacies.   

I think the 70's is a close race. This is the era where DC became DC. Jenette Kahn came in (the best thing to ever happen to DC at the executive level). Titles like
Swamp Thing, the cementing of Batman as "The Dark Knight Detective", Green Lantern/Green Arrow all helped comics mature. Characters like The Spectre got modern updates, and Jonah Hex debuted. There was also the DC Implosion, where several shortfalls in sales led to a huge cancellation of several titles. On the plus side, DC jumped into TV and film with the Super Friends cartoon, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman show, the live-action Shazam! show, and Superman: The Movie. Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC and introduced The New Gods. It really makes me wanna give it to DC but... Marvel's Spider-man began to evolve into what he is today. The Death of Gwen Stacy storyline ended The Silver Age and introduced The Bronze Age of comics. The Fantastic Four had several decent runs. David Michelinie and Bob Layton's defining run on Iron Man began here. This is also where Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-men started. 70's Marvel unleashed all of their monster books: Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Morbius, The Living Vampire. Even Blade first appeared in Gerry Conway/Marv Wolfman's Tomb of Dracula... On TV, The Incredible Hulk show is remembered by a certain generation, and there was even a poorly received Spider-man TV series. I'll call this decade a draw.

The 80's is quite difficult for me too judge here, because it's my favorite decade of comics. Marvel has their trifecta... John Byrne on Fantastic Four, Walt Simonson on Thor, Frank Miller on Daredevil... Apart from that, Roger Stern (known as Uncle Rog to 80's Marvel fans) unleashed his masterpiece of a run on the various Spider-man titles. Comics got darker and more sophisticated in general around the time Frank Castle (The Punisher) got his own series. This was the era of black-suited Spider-man and Venom debuted in the David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane run of Amazing Spider-man as well. 1987 saw Peter David begin his fan-favorite run on The Incredible Hulk. Mark Gruenwald began his decade long run on Captain America. At DC,
New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez became one of the top sellers in the industry. Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Steve Bisette, and John Totleben debuted. The Crisis happened and DC rebooted their universe with memorable runs by John Byrne on Superman and George Perez on Wonder Woman. DC cemented the beginning of comics' grim and gritty era with the most famous stories of the 1980's: The Dark Knight Returns (DKR) and Watchmen. To cap off the 80's, Warner Bros. released Tim Burton's Batman movie. It's another draw.
The 90's as a whole is not a great decade for either company. By 1993, the art was starting to get overblown with big muscles, even bigger guns, and even bigger... well, you get the idea. Comics "Dark Age" was in full swing, an indirect result of what DKR and Watchmen did to the industry. Marvel was the worst of this. John Byrne's Iron Man run was good... Michelinie finished up his Spidey run with some solid stuff. But then Marvel became a joke. The X-men became convoluted. There were Spider-clones, and the company almost went bankrupt because of the speculator boom. That's not to say there weren't any bright spots. Marvels by Alex Ross was amazing. Mark Gruenwald's Captain America finished pretty strong and Mark Waid took over for a solid run. For my money though, Marvel's best stuff were their cartoons. Spider-man: The Animated Series was phenomenal. As was X-men. DC on the other hand, gave us event after event. Robin III (Tim Drake) was developed, after the death of Jason Todd in 1989. Bane broke Batman's back in Knightfall. Although not as guilty of chasing lame gimmicks as Marvel, DC still indulged in them. DC's saving grace was 3-fold. First: the "Triangle Era" of the Superman titles, a solid run of books that was an outgrowth of John Byrne's Superman revamp from the 80's. 2) The DC Animated Universe was launched in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series. And 3) Vertigo was born in 1993 as DC's answer to the sophistication that comics had taken on since the Bronze Age. DC's events weren't as bad or frequent as Marvel's. All seemed overlong, overdrawn, and drawn out. The Death of Superman is the only DC stunt I have ever liked. It fits into a single omnibus for one thing. And it's aged well too. After that, Clark and Lois got married. On TV, Warner Bros. also gave us the Lois and Clark TV show, Superman: The Animated Series, and, on film, Batman sequels of varying quality. But Marvel also gave us the modern superhero movie boom with Blade. In my mind though, DC wins the 90's for better stories overall, including the best things they published that decade: Mark Waid's Flash run, and, DC's answer to MarvelsKingdom Come.

The 2000's is where Marvel's dominance begins. The comics got a lot better and the movies began to dominate. 2000's X-men owed almost everything to the 90's cartoon that catapulted the X-men into public consciousness. Of course, the Raimi Spider-man trilogy, the MCU, and the Spiderverse movie are all anybody really talks about from the Marvel of the last 20 years, but comics geeks know that Marvel has unleashed several great comics. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's "color books" and the Ultimate line of comics, the Civil War event, Brubaker's Captain America, and Mark Waid's Daredevil are great examples of how Marvel bounced back. 

Over at DC, their publishing side brought us Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier, All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, and other gems that will stand the test of time. The DCAU continued with another masterpiece, the Justice League cartoon. The Nolan Batman movies were, overall, another feather in DC's cap. They finally filmed Watchmen, released in 2008, after decades of trying to film "the unfilmable graphic novel." It's a great film, but not a great adaptation. Perhaps DC's best and most consistent writer in this century has probably been Geoff Johns. He led a lot of DC's events (including another Crisis) and gave solid runs on The Flash and Green Lantern. As fun as a lot of the DC books and other media have been, I think when Jenette Kahn retired in 2002, DC lost a lot of footing. Paul Levitz was the next best thing for a replacement, the ultimate fanboy turned executive. Eventually, he stepped down and we got Dan DiDio. It was under DiDio that DC began to fall from grace. He hasn't been terrible, per se. He just didn't take the company to its previous heights. He did eventually unleash The New 52 to very mixed results. That got rebooted into Rebirth and somewhere between those two events, the DC Extended Universe, helmed by Zack Snyder, became a thing. Man of Steel (2013) is a fun film. Wonder Woman is the jewel in DC's movie crown. It's a masterpiece and the best DC film, in my opinion, behind Donner's 1978 Superman. The other pieces of the DCEU haven't been great, not bad... but not great. 2019's Joker is another story... not part of the DCEU, but a standalone character study. This film is absolutely incredible. It's not faithful to The Joker at all, but as a film, it shows that a comic book movie doesn't have to follow any formula. The 2000's goes to DC for its cartoons and Batman films. The 2010's are easily a Marvel win.

So, who wins? Who's been more influential on the culture? There can't really be an answer. They've both done great things for pop culture. They both have had major ups and downs. They've both offered incredible stories across all media. One is an unstoppable force. The other is the immovable object. They are eternal rivals, destined to clash forever like the great superheroes and villains that fans read about.    

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Films of Ralph Bakshi

For animation buffs Ralph Bakshi needs no introduction. For the uninitiated, he pioneered the genre of "adult animation" through independent exploitation films in the 1970's. He's an unsung hero to many animators for his contributions to the medium but others view him and his work as little more than a product of 1970's counterculture. 

Born in 1938 in HaifaPalestine (now part of Israel), his family migrated to the U.S. when he was a year old in 1939. He started his animation career at the famous Terrytoons Studio. He quickly rose through the ranks,  also working at Hanna-Barbera and producing cartoons for CBS. His first work was directing and producing animated shorts in the mid 1960's. He also directed twenty-five episodes of the 60's Spider-man cartoon. He then went on to write, produce, act in, and direct his own independent animated features and short films. 

Fritz the Cat was Bakshi's first major project in 1972. Based on Robert Crumb's underground comic strip of the same name, this exploitation film features an anthropomorphized cat named Fritz who drops out of college and gets involved in the 70's counterculture movement in New York City, ultimately becoming a revolutionary leftist. The film satirizes the culture of the time, making statements on college life, the counterculture, politics, and race relations. The film features heavy profanity, sex, and drug use and is considered a pioneer in adult animation. It recieved an X rating from the MPAA and was criticized as being pornographic. While not his most beautiful looking movie it definitely is entertaining and I love how intelligent Bakshi treats the subject matter.     

Heavy Traffic was Bakshi's next feature. Released in 1973, this is about a young cartoonist obsessed with playing pinball named Michael Corleone (not The Godfather), who encounters all sorts of characters you'd expect to find in the gritty, impoverished neighborhoods of 1970's New York City. It features a few live-action segments and is just as exploitative as Fritz, featuring plenty of sexual situations, vulgarity, and violence. This was also given an X rating but it was far more successful and is often cited by critics as his best work. I find it to be a strange movie, at times incomprehensible, but still kind of enjoyable. If you're accustomed to Bakshi's unique animation style, you might also enjoy it.  

Coonskin came out in 1975. Featuring appearances by Scatman Crothers and Barry White this feature was part live-action, part animation. It's an urban crime film, part comedy, part Blaxploitation. It's a modern retelling of the black folk tales and legends popularized by Uncle Remus. Scatman Crothers plays the old man who narrates the stories of Brother Bear, Fox, and Rabbit in Harlem. This does get a lot of praise from critics and Quentin Tarantino has called it one of his favorite 1970's films. I find it hard to watch because of all of the racial stereotypes. It's my least favorite of Bakshi's work.     

Wizards was a departure from Bakshi's previous films. Released in 1977, this was a science-fiction/fantasy film. It tells a post-apocalyptic story of the wizard, Avatar, and his band of fairies, elves, and dwarves who must use magic and technology to defeat the evil Blackwolf. This is far more enjoyable and plot-driven than Bakshi's previous films and was his first film made for general audiences. Bakshi still manages to slip in the social commentary, exploring both the dangers of technology and the effects of political propaganda (the Nazi swastika is used as a symbol of war). I enjoy this movie, even if the pacing is a little slow by today's standards, and I think anyone who likes fantasy films will too. 

Perhaps, Bakshi's most infamous work, The Lord of the Rings adapts the Tolkein epic into a gorgeous 93 minute masterpiece. I still enjoy this movie more than Peter Jackson's trilogy. Coming out in 1978, Bakshi's movie may have been the most realistic looking film released since the Golden Age of Disney animation in the 1940's. Why? Because it was rotoscoped... filmed in live-action and then traced over, frame-by-frame, to create hyper-realistic animation. It's gorgeous atmosphere is one reason why this is my all-time favorite fantasy cartoon and it still holds up.   

1981's American Pop is Bakshi's return to adult animation. It's a musical film, telling a legacy story of a family's journey through the music of the 20th century. Russian immigrant, Zalmie, arrives in New York City. He marries a stripper  and their son, Benny, becomes a jazz pianist. Benny is killed in World War II but his son, Tony, goes on to great success as a songwriter during the 60's, as does Tony's son, Pete, in the 80's. While I appreciate the attempt at drama, I'm not much for musicals. I know Bakshi fans love this, and the animation is stellar, but this one is lost on me. 

Hey Good Lookin' is like 1982's vulgar and gritty answer to West Side Story. It's a violent yet comedic look at 1950's Brooklyn street life and tells the story of rival street gangs. This is another favorite of mine. The gritty subject matter is balanced with clever humor that lightens the film's darker tone. It's a proper return to the urban crime that defined Bakshi's early films. The animation is good as well.

Fire and Ice is another animated fantasy film. Released in 1983, after the success of The Beastmaster and Conan the Barbarian, this film tells the story of a tiny village that gets destroyed by a glacier, which serves as the deadly domain for the evil Ice Lord, Nekron. The only survivor is a young warrior, Larn, who vows vengeance for his home's destruction. Because this is Bakshi's most action oriented film, it was filmed in live-action and rotoscoped, just like Lord of the Rings. It's a darker film with memorable characters and an engaging story. This film is also well-known for Bakshi's collaboration with the great fantasy and comics artist, Frank Frazetta. Fantasy lovers should dig it.

Cool World
feels like the most contemporary of Bakshi's work. It came out in 
1992 and marked Bakshi's return to feature films after nine years of producing shorter works. This is yet another live-action/animation hybrid. It's a black comedy/fantasy that tells the story of a cartoonist who finds himself in the animated world he thinks he created, but has actually existed long before he was a cartoonist. He is seduced by one of the animated characters, a femme fatale named Holli Would, who wants to become human. It stars Kim Basinger, Gabriel Byrne and Brad Pitt. It was a box-office bomb and many consider it Bakshi's worst film. I actually like it and, although the plot can be a little slow, I'd say it's worth a watch. The effects are not as well done as films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit but are passable. I think the subpar effects and audiences not knowing what to make of this film upon release contributed to its poor performance.   

Bakshi continues to work today and his latest project, an animated short from 2015, is called 
Last Days of Coney Island. It is a return to his gritty urban films of the past. Bakshi's definitely an underappreciated artist in animation, especially these days. With any luck, future generations will discover and appreciate his unique work.