Thursday, June 26, 2008
You'd think that fulfilling one lifelong dream (teaching abroad) would be enough.
This year, I got to actually ride in the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile!
A dream since I was six years old. The current spokesperson for Oscar-Mayer is Magaly Estrella, a good friend of mine and an FIU student, so the Weinermobile was at the FIU parking lot.
For those that have never been in the Weinermobile, it was incredible. The whole inside had that new car smell. The interior was brilliant red and yellow, like a box of french fries, with rich airplane-style leather seats. You're even higher up than on most Grayhound buses; the windows are huge and panoramic, like a fighter plane. Even the glove compartments are sculpted to look like hot dog buns!
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Saturday, June 14, 2008
One of the best characteristics of good adventure comics and good comics writers, the most literate and intelligent (Englehart, Gerber, et. al.) is their ability to use their comics to have a discussion, to interact with the forces around them. If the nation is in malaise from Watergate, the comics should reflect that. If Christian fundamentalism has become a frighteningly powerful force in our culture, the comics should show that, too.
One of Stan Lee's greatest realizations was how Marvel Comics reacted to the antiestablishment, antiheroic strains of Modernism, just as much as Arthur Penn and Frances Coppola would take Truffeaut and Goddard, and from inside the studio system, start the American New Hollywood Cinema.
This characteristic, of responding to the greater world, is (mostly) lost now because of how comics writers have come to look at superhero and adventure books as being nostalgia-oriented. They view it as inherently for children (instead of for older children, intelligent children, teens, adults, and intelligent adults) and as a consequence write books with a lot less sophistication and credit to the reader. These writers also view comics as unable to have a dialogue with the bigger world, so they write comics about comics. I'm talking about writers like Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Jeph Loeb, and (at least post-1990) Alan Moore.
All this may sound a little weird when we're talking about fun, escapist adventure books. I'm not so sure, though. One of the interesting paradoxes about escapism is, the best kinds of escapism are based on experiencing emotions that we wouldn't ordinarily like to feel, but we enjoy in a story.
For instance, take Ben Grimm. He's an ugly monster, alone and alienated from the human race by his grotesque appearance, a character capable of great self-pity and who depends on his strength because he feels he doesn't have anything else to offer anyone.
Obviously, this isn't escapism in that, for instance, people want to BE Tarzan, because of his freedom, physical prowess, and exciting life. But it still is escapism! The defining characteristics of that most escapist of all literature, romance novels, is that at the end one of the lovers dies of cancer.
The greatest adventure comics writer of all time, Steve Englehart, realized how important it was for his work to interact with the world around him. Englehart's CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE FALCON was about the malaise of the Nixon years, conspiracies involving corporations that usurp American democracy, and the ruthlessness of energy/oil companies.
At the same time, Englehart's DOCTOR STRANGE was the first time that the good Doctor was influenced by the counterculture-spirited, British New Wave of science fiction and fantasy writers, personified in the magazine NEW WORLDS and represented by writers like Norman Spinrad and Michael Moorcock, and had an influence on writers like Roger Zelazny and Frank Herbert. Briefly put, the spirit of the British New Wave was the following:
1) The importance of Jungian symbolism, and the reality and significance of symbol becoming personified or real. This was the first science fiction for which psychology was important. This is also the first science fiction for whichthere was significance to dreams and the collective unconscious. Also, where the events of the story in the outer world were identical to what was going on in a character's inner mind.
2) An emphasis on non-Western, non-scientific cosmologies and means of measuring time. The idea of the "multiverse" was new to science fiction but not to Hinduism. The idea of a spirit world where real consciousness happens, for instance. This was the first science fiction where
3) Hallucinogenic drugs as the secret of the universe, as seen in Norman Spinrad's stories about a "true" drug culture, or Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius.
4) A fascination with alternate sexuality, hermaphroditism, homosexuality.
5) A rejection of fascism, right-wing politics, Toryism, anti-imperialism, antiracism, and an embracing of radical politics and the counterculture.
6) A rejection of the escapist adventure story.
All of the above are present in Englehart's rock n' roll DOCTOR STRANGE, with the exception of #4, which couldn't be delved into because of the restrictions of the comics code. Sounds like the punchline of a joke, doesn't it? The Comics Code was at first a tragedy and then it became a farce. But apparently there are still some things that, even in the crazy 1970s (when Americans still had balls) a mainstream comic couldn't do. Englehart made up for #4 in a very, very big way with his sex-filled COYOTE, the main character of whom had a sexuality almost as oddball as Jerry Cornelius himself.
But hey, let's go down these one by one.
#1) Englehart was fascinated by representing symbolic figures. He featured Death heavily, for example, as well as Eternity. Englehart did not create either one, but the way he used them, as a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment, WAS new. In one story, Englehart has Doctor Strange go through every period of his life. Every period of his life taught him something. In other words, the external events of the story were related to the character's inner world and mental state. He could never win externally because the problem was internal.
#2) Everything about Englehart's work priveledged and valorized non-Western, Indian, Shamanistic and Chinese means of thinking. This is obvious enough, but what's interesting is how Englehart applied this perspective. The best example of non-linear thinking would be in Englehart's treatment of time in the battle against Sisi-Neg.
#3) HAHAHAHAHAHA. Oh boy! The biggest not-so-secret secret of the Marvel Universe is that Doctor Strange has a lot of great shit. Why do you think the Defenders hung around the Sanctum Sanctorum all the time? Englehart had to approach this subject very carefully considering how mainstream what he was writing was, but the best example would be DOCTOR STRANGE #6, where Englehart and Clea were in Central Park and a junkie approached them. "In my time, in my studies...I have dealt with many drugs to free the body and mind..."
#5) Fascinatingly enough, DOCTOR STRANGE was Englehart's least political work, though his works made Englehart's political leanings clear, along with his distrust of hysterical patriotism and corporate power. Doctor Strange had the fascination with Eastern mysticism, rejection of materialism, and distaste for violence that the counterculture had. There are only a few hints of politics. In DOCTOR STRANGE #11 the good Doctor encountered a figure that represented repression and authority, who wore a Nixon mask. There too was the villainous Silver Dagger, an insane, fanatical witch-hunter that ironically, was a student of magic. He wasn't as memorable as Gerber's Foolkiller, to be sure, but he condemned Christian religious fundamentalism.
#6) Doctor Strange, under Englehart, were not stories about the exilaration of power. Doctor Strange was ineffective when applying power, because he managed to overcome obstacles by understanding and realizing their true nature. Yes, Doctor Strange was adventure, and yes it was escapist, but what's interesting is what Englehart could accomplish within the structures of traditional comics.
By the way, everything I'm talking about here goes a million for Englehart's COYOTE, which had the essence of his DOCTOR STRANGE and MARVEL PREMIERE work boiled down, but it was done in a different context...well, it's worth a post in and of itself!
Finally, it seems rather pointless at this point to point out that Englehart, like Spinrad and Moorcock, had a giant beard and did a lot of drugs in the sixties and seventies.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Have a look at Jelena Abbou. Even among models, she stands out. Did you hear the one where she went to court, and the judge ruled she was too fit to stand trial?
And for my lady readers (hey Malika, hey Melanie!) here's some beefcake shots of the fabulous West-African born Ulysses Williams Jr.!
Sunday, June 8, 2008
It's also worth mentioning that Kitty Pryde had a negative influence on many other comics, so her evil influence seeped out from X-Men: Halo for instance, shows a definite Kitty Pryde influence as a kid incongruously and inappropriately present on a team of mature adults.
Monday, June 2, 2008
Only once does HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL give in to a pratfall of historical pseudofiction, and that's in a truly excruciating blow-by-blow treatment of the Parzival story, where the highly symbolic story is treated with such literalism that it makes me wonder if the writer might suffer from autism.
The guys that wrote HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL also wrote my favorite Doctor Who episode, "The Sontaran Experiment." Seriously, chew on that for a second: the guy who wrote this book also wrote a TV episode about a future earth where a rubberfaced spaceman that lives in a soccer ball and his pet robot torture astronauts.
Here it is, my long-overdue review of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.
In short, I had a great time. It's a worthy addition that maintains the quality of the previous films. My anxiety about the return to Indiana Jones after all this time is dispelled, and I remembered why I liked this stuff in the first place.
There's no talking about this movie without mentioning how well it updated the Cold War era. Indy goes to malt shops, is suspected of Un-American Activities, and most intriguingly of all, the Nazi obsession with the occult is replaced by the Russian obsession with the paranormal: UFOs, psychics, ancient astronauts. One of the characters, the suitably hammy dominatrix Cate Blanchette, was hinted at being a KGB "Remote Viewer," a real-life program of psychics that used clairvoyance for espionage.
The Crystal Skull, and its bizarre unearthly properties, has the same sense of fear and otherworldliness that the Ark of the Covenant had (and the Grail didn't have).
Harrison Ford has a fantastic charm. He's still got it: he makes a look or smiles at the right time to make a line a lot better than it ought to be. Roger Ebert said that Ford "doesn't get older, he just frowns more." After 20 years, the character is still recognizable: he's still got the hat and whip.
Indiana Jones reminds me of Doc Savage: a character that started in the 1930s, transitioned to the War Years and fought the Hun, and then finally battled the Communists in Cold War, paranoia-filled tales. Some of Doc Savage's last adventures remind me of CRYSTAL SKULL, with Doc fighting the age-specific bugaboos of the time. One in particular featured Doc discovering the secrets of "Foo Fighters" (the pre-1950s name for Flying Saucers).
In that respect, they picked the single most obvious Indiana Jones story to do, except maybe "Indy finds Atlantis." Who ever tried to read von Daniken's CHARIOTS OF THE GODS? and thought, "hey, Indy should do something with this?" As a UFO and Ancient Astronaut obsessed kid that read von Daniken and THE TWELFTH PLANET and watched IN SEARCH OF... regularly, I even urged my Dad during a family trip to see the actual Crystal Skull discovered in the 1930s: how it was made is one of the great brain teasers of archeology.
For what its worth, I think the transition was successful: the paranormal elements had the same sense of fear and atmosphere that the supernatural elements of the previous stories did. There was one sequence in particular that was absolutely brilliant: Indiana Jones, fleeing from the KGB, ran and hid in a makeshift town about to be used as an atomic bomb test site. What I thought was interesting about this was, in a flash we realized that the Indy that bested the Nazis was no match for the atomic age.
Shia LeBouf was a very worthy sidekick, a great Dick Grayson to Indy's Batman. He gave us some of the more humorous moments of the movie, which was packed with humorous moments. The KGB and Blanchette are about to gun him down. His last words? "I like Ike."
Spielberg is my favorite action director (with the possible exception of the CITY OF LOST CHILDREN guy). He is still every bit the auteur film school nerd in love with Igmar Bergman that he was back in the day. 30 years in Hollywood haven't stifled his ability to show us something totally different. Spielberg shoots action better than any director I know: by actually moving the camera. By using what the camera shows and doesn't show in interesting ways. At no point during the film did I say, "gee, I've seen this before in a billion other action pictures."
Of all the INDIANA JONES movies, this is the one that brings it all together, and so it leads me to believe this may be the last one. The Ark of the Covenant shows up (like Shaft, the Ark has theme music that follows it around everywhere), as does Marian Ravenwood and the Citizen Kane warehouse. Likewise, there are references to the YOUNG INDIANA JONES series: they mention the episode where Indy was captive of Pancho Villa. And it seems Indy is now living in his Father's house from LAST CRUSADE, where we learn the loveable old coot kicked the bucket.
The Indiana Jones novels aren't directly referenced, but a big part of the story was Indiana Jones's background in espionage...something that was a major feature of the novels, but never mentioned in the movies until now. Likewise, Indiana Jones functions in this story like Doc Savage, a chief to a team of sidekicks, which was how he worked in the novels but less so in the actual movies, or even the comics.
And Cate Blanchette has a fantastic menace. She gives one monologue that is downright chilling, about the future of mind wars. It's strange, I can't think of Irina Spalkov without thinking about my Mother. Maybe it's because Mom's name is also "Irina." My grandparents were Estonian, but like my Father's family, they were antifascist pro-Communist true believers, and big time Russophiles, big enough to give Mama a Russian name (though they came to regret it and become disillusioned).