Monday, September 30, 2013

TV Review: "Agents of SHIELD"

I am very cynical about non-animated TV doing superhero comics correctly, and for a pretty good reason: it's never done superheroes correctly before.

Ever. No exceptions, no wiggle room. Every panel I've seen on superheroes on TV asks some variation on "why can't they get it right?" It's not just the limits of special effects, although limited special effects and budget do unquestionably play a role: remember George Reeves's door knocking? Rather, the problem is one of attitude. There's embarrassment of superheroes' high concept traits that reflects a kind of chickenshit, play it safe conservatism.

Arrow would be Exhibit A: a dead serious procedural where the hero doesn't wear a costume.

Agents of SHIELD is only superficially similar to Arrow, and may require me to re-evaluate the view TV doesn't get it. I had a list of reservations about this show a mile long. I was initially worried it would be a genre spy show that runs away from its comics origins. I was pleasantly surprised to see it didn't. I knew it would call back Avengers and the Marvel movies, but I didn't know it would THIS MUCH. The MacGuffin in the first act is leftover Chitauri tech from Avengers (yes, a big plot point in the series is alien superscience). Extremis from Iron Man 3 is not only referenced, it's the center of the pilot's entire third act.

Best of all, the series captures the Marvel movie tone perfectly: wiseass, rapid fire pitter patter, based around self-awareness and funny timing. It's FUN and funny – something the trailers did not successfully get across. I give it the highest praise I can think of under the circumstances: it feels like a 45 minute Marvel movie.

As for playing it safe with high concept oddities…there was a goddamn flying car.

In addition to that, the greatest strength of SHIELD is it has a leading man, Agent Coulson, an unlikely wildly popular fan favorite character entirely because of the performance of Clark Gregg, who surprisingly, is more of a writer and director than an actor. In the age of the dark TV antihero, Agent Coulson is someone you instinctively trust, who, when given an "easy" way out of a problem (shooting and killing an innocent man to prevent an explosion), refuses to take it as it'd leave a child an orphan and instead chooses a third way. When confronted with a whistleblower, Agent Coulson's reaction is to bring them in and make them a part of the organization instead of cracking down and closing ranks.

When told all secret agent G-Men do is lie and make examples out of little guys that don't fall in line, he rebukes that idea to give a guy going through hard times a second chance. In an age when we're afraid of shadowy observers, I like that, at least Agent Coulson is there to lend a hand, and not place a boot to the throat. The show realizes some people are just creeped out by secret government surveillance and has to make the good guys people with integrity to earn our respect.

Agent Coulson reminds me of Captain Picard from Star Trek: the Next Generation. A leading man of integrity who refuses to accept the only way to solve problems is violence, who's most distinctive physical feature is his hairline, who somehow manages to be bigger than life and commanding despite being of medium height, and who has a dashing, action oriented second-in-command.

The sidekick is always created to be a foil for the main hero. If the hero is sophisticated, the sidekick is more "rough and tumble." If the hero is happy-go-lucky and carefree, his ally will be rocksteady and reliable. And in the case of this show, if Coulson is a nontraditional, outside the box thinker, his second in command is a more reactionary type who trusts a lot less.

This brings to mind maybe the biggest misstep of the pilot: the central intercharacter conflict is between a female whistleblower/hacker who hates secrecy and deceit, and a way more reactionary SHIELD agent. This is a great idea, because in the wake of domestic spying scandals along with the revelations of WikiLeaks and Snowden, a show about a heroic government agency designed to keep would be, well, creepy. The moral issues there have to be acknowledged.

It reminds me of how the biggest problem with the original 70s Battlestar Galactica is the conflict between civilian and military authority, with the noble military struggling against cowardly, treacherous civilian government, like something out of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. So a character was added in the reboot (civilian president Laura Roslin) to do this complex conflict justice.

A whistleblower functioning as group conscience would be a great conflict and topical. Unfortunately, they sabotaged and underserved this conflict by making the hacker girl a cute, ditzy fangirl into the super business because she's a groupie. Imagine if someone smart, someone made of fire and steel, was cast in the role, someone like a young Sigourney Weaver or Michelle Forbes, who'd really fight against her reactionary SHIELD male counterpart! Of all the characters to not make a "Major Kira!" They neutered the central conflict by making She-Snowden into Doris Day.

The Moonlighting dynamic is cliché, but it's cliché for a reason: it works. But Moonlighting only worked because Bruce Willis was paired up with Sibyll Shepherd.

This is surprising because Joss Whedon, like Chris Claremont, has a rep for writing badass babes and warrior women. In the case of Whedon, I'm not certain this rep is deserved. Apart from the obvious exception of Buffy, his writing is overrepresented with vulnerable, wounded, "cute" everywomen in need of a hug. If Whedon really did deserve his rep as an amazon-lover, he'd have used Storm in his X-Men run instead of Kitty Pryde, who he made his POV and main character. Claremont, on the other hand, wrote the Invisible Woman and the Wasp like Storm. In the case of Agents of SHIELD, someone wrote what should have been Storm like the Wasp.

Apart from the whistleblower vs. secrecy conflict, the other big, topical idea in Agents of SHIELD is best personified by a hard on his luck single Dad. At the end, this Dad talks about a general feeling a lot of us have since the financial collapse of 2008: for the little guy willing to work hard, America doesn't live up to its end of the deal, and little guys are screwed and stepped on by the big guys. To even get by, you have to be a giant, super…and where does that leave the rest of us?

I was very worried Agents of SHIELD chose to make the show about nonpowered agent characters to "run away" from superheroes, but this assured me that they made this show from their point of view for a reason, to make a point: the little guy's eye view of the Marvel Universe, like something out of Busiek's Marvels or Astro City.

Agents of SHIELD deserves special praise for having a pretty realistic and up to date take on nerds, too. The traditional, Peter Parker style awkward nerd in glasses is not really in style thanks to geek-chic, and the latest reboot of Spider-Man reflected that, making him more an alienated loner and less the traditional nerd. The biochemist and engineer on this series are an equally up to date take on nerds. They remind me of all the people I used to see in my science classes and still see posting minutiae about cave snails and Florida orchids on my Facebook wall: not outwardly antisocial, but with bizarre interests that bore most people, and easily excitable by little, gross arcana.

The cast's "secret weapon" might be Ming-Na Wen. Yes, the mighty Mulan herself is on this show, and why that isn't a selling point I'll never know. She's silent, intense, clearly an experienced combat vet (no little girl, the actress is over 40), a crack pilot, and she gave a breathtaking smackdown with her spy fighting skills. The implication of the pilot is, she's a character very much like Garibaldi from Babylon 5: a chequered past, this is her last chance to make good. Like Garibaldi, I'm guessing her past involves alcoholism or PTSD.

Agents of SHIELD is so very Marvel: it's got the humorous, fun tone that made the Marvel movies infinitely more watchable than DC's dead-serious efforts (I admire the Nolan movies a lot more than I like them). It certainly isn't Arrow, afraid to use its universe and running away from wild things like costumes and boxing glove arrows. Heck, remember the single-Dad superhero? He didn't have a costume, but at least he acted like one: hell, he saved one more innocent citizen than Superman did in all of Man of Steel.

In short, it's a success…maybe one of the first decent attempts to translate comics to television. And I'll be watching this week, too.

Things to Ponder: 

  • How great is it they use the term "superhero?" Most shows run away from that term.
  • Project: Pegasus apparently exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Does the Thing work there in between attempts to get his pro-wrestling career going? My Spidey-sense tells me this will be a plot point.
  • All of us True Believers caught the reference to Forbush-Man, right? If not, turn in your Merry Marvel Marching Society card!

  • Everyone caught how they slipped Journey into Mystery in dialogue, right? Before you think that's nothing special, that's one more fannish, Easter Egg reference than was in all of Man of Steel, that's for sure.
  • What gets everyone excited here are the hints there's more than there appears when it comes to Phil Coulson's mysterious resurrection. Here's a possibility a friend told me: what if Coulson is, and always has been, a SHIELD life model decoy? Explains why he seemed to be in several different places at once during the movies. 
  • This is a small nit, but couldn't they have used ONE canon SHIELD character as a regular on this show? Would it have been so hard to dig up Clay Quartermain, or Jimmy Woo, or Jasper Stiltwell, or the Contessa, or Bobbi Morse?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: E.E. Smith's Lensman Spin-Off Novel, "Masters of the Vortex"

Imagine if math whiz Nate Silver was the hero of the movie "Twister," and you've basically got the premise of E.E. Smith's Lensman spin-off novel "Masters of the Vortex."

Our nuclear engineer hero uses his math skills to ride out and destroy atomic vortexes, or swirling, constant atomic explosions that, in terms of natural disaster plausibility, only barely beat out "reverse meteors." In the pulp SF universe of the Lens, if you have a slide rule and some all-American gumption, there's no natural phenomena you can't lick!

To his unbelievable good fortune, "Storm" Cloud lives in the one science fiction setting ever where the ability to do math in your head superfast practically makes you a superhero and isn't rendered superfluous by computers: the Lensman universe, an interstellar civilization anachronistically based on vacuum tube electronics, where the writer's imagination could conceive of planet crushing superweapons and faster than light travel but not an integrating computer any smaller than several tons. Eventually, you realize when the book talks about a "master computer" it means a person.

"Storm" Cloud is not a Lensman himself, which I'm sure made E.E. Smith breathe a sigh of relief, considering how impossible it must have been to come up with challenges worthy of the most ludicrously supercompetent heroes in all of fiction. Imagine if MacGyver was a telepathic dragon and you start to get the idea.

"Storm" Cloud has a different superpower: math. For instance, he uses "statistical analysis" to predict criminal behavior and figure out the lair of drug dealers (Zwilniks), indicating that the Universe of the Lens might not have an internet, but it easily beats our world when it comes to applied sabermetrics. He also uses mathematics to take on the house at gambling: he's even able to figure out how to win when the dealer cheats and stacks the deck. Since the dealer always does it the same way, you can figure out the pattern.

When Cloud's family are killed by an atomic vortex, his character turns vaguely suicidal, and with the mania of a person with a death wish, he leaps to figure out the correct, ever changing way to make an atomic vortex go bust, figuring if he's wrong, he has nothing to lose. When he ends up figuring out the first ever way to destroy vortexes, he becomes an intergalactic celebrity and hero, and his life acquires a new purpose. Imagine if someone figures out a way to destroy hurricanes or tornadoes and you'd get the idea.

Soon, Dr. Cloud is joined by an eccentric crew of oddballs and misfits who assist him in his rocket in "Vortex Blasting," and with who Cloud discovers a new purpose. The fact our hero is recovering from the loss of his family and is depressed and borderline-suicidal is a new angle, one that gives this character an arc. After all, due to the death of his family, Cloud is a much bigger misfit than the Lensmen were.

This is also an interesting look at the much older E.E. Smith, returning to the Lensmen universe in 1960 after a pause of close to 15 years (he would tragically, die five years later). Middle aged family men are prone to two very dark fantasies: one is faking their own death successfully, and the other is having their family die in some accident, which makes them going off on some exciting new life away from them. I'm not saying they want their family to die, only that there's a longing for freedom.

Some history is in order, here: Smith wrote the short story that formed the kernel of this novel, "The Vortex Blaster," in 1941, in the magazine "Comet." The original short story from 1941, "The Vortex Blaster," is actually the opening few chapters in the novel, "Masters of the Vortex." Smith wrote a story in the Lensman universe (unlike Triplanetary, this one was always in the Universe of the Lens) as a favor to F. Orlin Tremaine, the pre-John W. Campbell editor of Astounding, an act of loyalty to help out Tremaine's new pulp mag "Comet." But since Smith was publishing the Lensman stories in Campbell's Astounding, he couldn't get a true Lensman story in "Comet," and only published a story in the Lensman universe. In 1960, Smith blew his short story up into a novel.

This makes sense. The Lensman Universe is big enough to have a thousand more stories inside of it.

That said, though Masters of the Vortex is a great new direction showing the more psychological SF of the year 1960, it's just plain GOOD to be back in the Lensman universe. I'd compare it to when Star Trek came back after years away in the new Trek movie. Hearing about Lensmen, speeders, tractors, dureum, Boskonians, Bergenholm drives, space axes (though the less superhuman and ordinary Cloud uses more of a "space-hatchet") fill you with the same charge as the familiar phasers, photon torpedoes, Klingons, and Starfleet Academy did when Trek returned.

There are even hints after all this time, Smith wants to play around and have fun with the conventions of the genre he helped create.

For instance, there's a subplot where Cloud, doing what engineer-scientists always seem to do in old space opera, comes to the rescue of an alien princess unjustly captured by a dictator, but it turns out the princess in need of rescue is not exactly in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold: she's a dome headed, elephant-legged creature. She might be called "elephant princess" and would be right at home beside the Adventure Time oddballs like Slime Princess and Hot Dog Princess.

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen: a space hero would rescue a princess who isn't exactly screwable. This kind of Princess rescue is nonetheless an important job for a wisecracking Anglo-Saxon addicted to cigarettes and alcohol who loves explaining things to others they already know.

Maybe because the Lensman books were a girl-free zone, Doc Smith overcorrects here, and the ratio of men to women in Storm Cloud's crew is like something out of a harem anime or She-Ra's planet Etheria. We see a lot of races only mentioned in dialogue in Lensman: the doctor is a mute, telepathic Manarkan with a legalistic worldview, the cook is a cute brick-pink Chickladorian, the linguist is Vesta the Vegian, a cat-girl who speaks 50 languages with a battle cry of "tails high, sisters!" and my favorite, the engineer, Tommie, a Tomingan, a race also called "squatties" for their heavy-gravity shortness and stout diesel truck builds; Tommy loses her temper and loves to smoke huge cigars.

The love story is basically an REO Speedwagon song: emotionally "damaged goods" people who learn to love again. One of the most amusing and revealing details about the time when it's written is that when it's revealed one of the female characters is over 30 and not married, the immediate question is, "what's wrong with her?"

The love interest is Dr. Joan Janowick, a 34-year old, a slightly chubby integrating computer engineer, cyberneticist, and telepath with a few streaks of gray. Dr. Janowick has a PhD in Cybernetics, and it took me a while to figure this out from context clues (just like when they say 'computer' in this story they mean a person), but in 1960 "cybernetics" didn't mean robot parts, but mathematical systems and patterns. Everyone is a mathematician in this story!

Cloud does have a power/competence gaining arc similar to the Lensmen, though, at a vastly reduced scale. At times, the Lensman novels feel like a Dungeons and Dragons game where the Game Master is way, way too liberal with the experience points and loot. Here, Cloud practices nonstop with his guns until he becomes a lightning quick draw. This is another sign of how, like Star Wars, the Lensman books were oddly Western-informed, with dive saloons and crusty meteor miners.

Some unique aspects of the Lens Galaxy were explored in this story. Language in the Lensman novels was a non-issue because of the Lens's universal translator ability. This is the first to tell us what language was like in the galaxy of the Lens, and…here's a surprise: the most widely used language in the galaxy is Galactic Spanish (or "Zpanidge," as aliens pronounce it), since the vowels are softer and it's more logical in grammar and spelling. Doesn't it just turn everything upside down when you find out everyone's been speaking Spanish all this time?

Spaceal, the universal pidgin lingua franca, is good for two things; engineering concepts and lewd swearing. It has to be experienced to be believed. It's somewhere between 60s Stan Lee teenager talk and a stroke:

"Stacked? She's stacked like Gilroy's Tower, Buster – an honest to god DISH, believe me, and raring to go. We were on one of those long weekend jaunts around the system, one of those things things were apt to get off the green at times…"

Things to Ponder:
  • Amazing Stories reference: one of the planets is named "Palmer III."
  • Thing I will never get tired of: people adding emphasis by saying "…and you can check me to ten decimals on that!" A gorgeous or unique woman is called a "real prime number." Is everything math-centered in this civilization?
  • What a relief it is none of the crowd-pleasing characters from the Lensmen books show up here. It'd feel like what it is, like when Ted Danson shows up on Frasier: "oh, hey! Nice spin-off you've got here…"
  • The Lensman universe is a deeply problematic world in one way, because you have to really write around the "call the cops" problem: any scenario that can be solved by calling the cops. Multiply that usual issue in stories by a billion if it's the LENSMEN. 
  • If there's one thing I hate, it's grammar pedants. If there's another thing I hate, it's wrong grammar pedants. Believe it or not, there are some words with multiple correct plural forms; both "octopuses" and "octopi" are correct. So are "vortexes" and "vortices." The book prefers vortices, on the grounds that it's way less clear what they're talking about that way.
  • There's one potentially very dark interpretation of the fact "Storm" Cloud, a scientist studying vortexes, had a family home that naturally attracted a vortex by its construction. Look, do I need to spell it out for you? Stormy had them killed! I can't possibly be the only one this thought ever occurred to, can I?
  • Everyone knows that the original idea behind licensed Star Wars novel villain, the Saruman-like evil Jedi Master Joruus C'Baoth, is that he was originally going to be an evil clone of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Lucasfilm nixed that idea as going too far. Is it possible D.D. Cloudd from the David Kyle Lensman novel "Lensman from Rigel" was originally going to be "Storm" Cloud from "Masters of the Vortex" finally having a proper team up with the 2nd Stage Lensmen heroes, but the idea was nixed at the last minute for licensing reasons? The characters of D.D. Cloudd and Neil Cloud are practically identical and have the exact same character arc: they are non-Lensed civilian science experts who work closely with the Galactic Patrol who went into their research because of a death of a family member that fills them with a self-destructive deathwish, which they overcome because they find a new meaning and purpose surrounded by other misfits.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Millennium Comics' Doc Savage: the Manual of Bronze (1992)

Apart from the pun in the name, the Manual of Bronze is a slim below-comic sized volume, a totally unique object printed by Millennium Comics in 1992, during the brief time they had the Doc Savage comics license.

Millennium's work can be pointed out as the single most accurate interpretation of Doc ever, remembering details scattered through 150+ novels, like how Long Tom had a gold tooth that, whenever it was knocked out, he'd vow to get the guy responsible. Their comic adaptation of Repel (aka the "Deadly Dwarf") is one of the most artistically successful ever, and maybe one of the showiest, featuring Doc's archfoe, an evil gay millionaire midget who insists his henchmen walk around shirtless (yes, really).

The Manual of Bronze includes detailed character bios on Doc, the Gang, and a few selected villains (including the aforementioned Deadly Dwarf), and it's even a scrapbook of Doc Savage art by different artists, a prospect that must have been a lot more tantalizing before the invention of Google Image Search. My favorite is Adam Hughes, and here's why:

It's worth owning for no other reason than it's intimately researched and complete and shows diagrams of gadgets and equipment like Doc's Helldiver, the Fortress of Solitude, etc. I didn't care for the Supermachine Pistols' out-there design; since the machine pistol later on became a reality in the form of the uzi, wouldn't it stand to reason they'd look something like that, only with a curled magazine?

In any case, if you like to clip and save diagrams from comics about vehicles and gadgets (and I sure do), this is for you.

What's more, this is the only book of its kind thus far made for Doc Savage. Perhaps one day we'll get a more detailed illustrated reference. Until then, this one will have to do.