Monday, November 23, 2015
Friday, November 20, 2015
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Sometimes, a great movie is so good there is danger of forgetting that it was based on a great novel or short story.
This isn’t always the case. Alan Lemay’s The Searchers or Charles Portis’ True Grit, for instance, are well-known enough by themselves to be remembered alongside the movies they inspired.
But I’ll bet a lot of movie fans—and even a lot of fans of prose Westerns—don’t know or remember that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is based on a 1949 short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson.
Johnson combined a sparse writing style with wonderful characterizations. She was able to give us an effective snapshot of a character and a setting in just a few words, setting up the ensuing story without wasting any words. To a large degree, her Westerns remind me of the best hard-boiled detective stories.
It’s interesting to compare Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to the movie version. In the film, Jimmy Stewart is a tenderfoot coming west—a man who is convinced that the law (and NOT the gun) is what is needed to bring civilization to the West. But he meets and gets the snot beaten out of him by Liberty Valance, a brutal thug who pretty much everyone in the territory fears. Even after this, though, Ranse (Stewart’s character) is determined to follow the law and not turn to violence. When he does finally take up a gun, it is only after a long and heartfelt moral struggle.
Interwoven with this is his growing relationship with Hallie (Vera Miles) and his antagonistic “friendship” with Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). All of this plays a part in Ranse’s final confrontation with
Director John Ford uses these personal stories to make cogent points about civilization, the use of violence within a civilized society, and tensions between fact and legend.
In the original story, though, Ranse isn’t quite as admirable. He’s coming West after a family argument; his encounter with Liberty makes him want to kill the thug; and his behavior is all carefully calculated to lure Liberty into the town so that Ranse can confront him. This version of Ranse has no qualms about using a gun, though he has no real expectation of winning a fight.
Hallie is still there, as is Bert (the character renamed Tom in the film). The interpersonal relationships between these three is pretty much the same, leading up to a similar ending.
Liberty himself is much less visible in the
story than in the movie—he no longer represents the savage, uncivilized Wild
West, but is simply one man’s personal demon.
So the short story is much more about just the characters and only touches lightly on other themes. It is, therefore, a much smaller story. But NOT smaller in a bad way. It is an engaging and suspenseful tale that surprises you by making you care for an unlikeable protagonist.
That John Ford took the story and built it into something else is fine—since he ended up making a truly classic Western. But this is a case where it’s important not to forget that the short story came first and is a classic in on its own terms.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Quasar was a good character, but also a second-tier hero who never hit the big time. So, even though I know a lot of you reading this are up on your comic history, I'll give a brief "Who the heck is Quasar?" recap.
His real name is Wendell Vaughn and he used to be a security guard at Stark International. When a powerful alien artifact called the Quantum Bands were being studied at a Stark facility, AIM agents tried to steal it. Wendell used the Bands to fight them off, became the hero Quasar, got some training from SHIELD, then became chief of security at Project Pegasus--a government research project looking into alternate energy sources.
Ben Grimm and Quasar worked together during a Marvel Two-in-One story arc set at Project Pegasus, so its no surprise when Quasar asks Ben to accompany him an a raid to break up the organization that had been persistently trying to wreck the project. This brings us to Marvel Two-in-One #73 (March 1981), written by Ralph Macchio and drawn by Ron Wilson.
The bad guys are unpowered mooks, so you would think Ben and Quasar could mop the floor with them pretty easily. But they don't count on the villains having a dimensional projector--sending the heroes on an unplanned vacation to a jungle planet in another dimension--a planet inhabited by cavemen and dinosaurs.
Frankly, I don't know why anyone would have to be forced to visit a planet full of dinosaurs. I don't care what the Jurassic Park franchise has been desperately trying to teach us--if it's got dinosaurs, then, by golly, I'm going.
Well actually, in this case, the planet is spoiled by Roxxon Oil, the Marvel Universe's go-to company whenever they needed an evil corporation. Roxxon has gotten the idea of drilling for oil in other dimensions. By itself, this actually isn't a bad idea. But Roxxon has also enslaved the local cavemen as a source of cheap labor.
Soon, Ben and Quasar are attacked by hovercraft. Ben is hit with knock-out gas and captured. Quasar manages to hook up with free cavemen, who have learned English from their captors and have gathered an army of dinosaurs to use in their fight for freedom. Quasar soon agrees to help them.
Meanwhile, the head bad guy conveniently explains the entire situation to Ben--a contrived and over-used plot device, but justified in this case because the bad guy wants to bribe Ben into switching sides. Naturally, this does not go well for the villian. Not only does Ben rip his way out of his shackles, but Quasar and his dinosaur/caveman army attacks.
This, of course, is the point of the whole issue. The story is a really good one, well-constructed and making complete sense in the context of a comic book universe. But it was clearly built around the idea of showing us dinosaurs wrecking havoc on puny humans. And I, of course, am fine with that. As the ancient proverb teaches us: If you tire of dinosaurs, you tire of life itself.
It's a neat twist, adding some more tension to the climax and forcing the heroes to use their brains rather than just punch stuff.
So we have a good story plus dinosaurs wrecking havoc. Why scientists in real life haven't invented dimensional portals, time machines or dinosaur-cloning so that we can see this sort of thing for ourselves is beyond me. It really is.
Next week, we'll find out why its a bad idea to step on an unfamiliar throw-rug.
Monday, November 16, 2015
Friday, November 13, 2015
Thursday, November 12, 2015
I'm far from the first person to point this out, of course, but it is interesting to note that among the cultural influences that eventually led to the creation of the modern superhero were fairy tales. A lot of the characters have what is essentially superpowers and the heroes often accomplish some pretty epic deeds.
The story is enormously entertaining--considered by many Baum fans to be one of his best. In it, the fairy queen and her fairies make a magic cloak (pretty much because they are bored). The cloak will grant one wish to each person who wears it, as long as the current person wearing it didn't steal it from the previous owner.
The cloak ends up in the possession of an orphan girl named Fluff. Extremely odd circumstances make Fluff's younger brother Bud the king of Noland, so Fluff is now a princess. The cloak ends up being inadvertently passed around among the young king's five counselors, each of whom makes an off-the-cuff wish without being aware of the cloak's power. So each of them ends up with an odd power--giant-size; the ability to reach out and grab things many yards away; granting a pet dog the ability to talk; and so on. Before all this happens, Fluff's ill-tempered aunt gives herself wings.
When Queen Zixi of Xi decides she wants the cloak, she leads her army against Noland. But the various wish-granted powers are used in several ways to send her soldiers fleeing in panic.
Later on, the cloak as gone missing. Fluff and Bud must now enlist Queen Zixi as an ally to find it and save Noland from rampaging creatures called Roly-Rogues.
I love how Baum so efficiently establishes the internal logic of the story, then uses this logic to move the plot along in unexpected ways. I enjoy the surprising depth of some elements of the story--Zixi's character arc is believable and mature; while Bud's child-like attitude to being king is handled realistically without ignoring the consequences of this (such as a seemingly wise decision causing an injustice to an innocent person). The aunt who gets wings also shows remarkable character growth.
But mostly, I like the part where a winged woman, a few super-powered politicians and a talking dog work together to defeat a large army without actually hurting anyone.
Queen Zixi of Xi was made into a silent film in 1914, which I'm embedding below. By then, it was obvious that Oz would always be where Baum's readers most wanted to go, so the film version ended up with the title The Magic Cloak of Oz.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Cliches exist for a reason. Elements commonly used in many stories have become cliches because--if used well--help make a story stronger.
"The Space Traitor," from Tom Corbett, Space Cadet #7 (Aug-Oct. 1953) is a good example of this. The character arcs involving Bob Keen--an upperclassman at the the Space Academy--and his ne'er-do-well brother Jim are completely predictable. Yet, all the same, they help form the backbone of a very entertaining yarn.
Bob joins Tom's group of younger cadets to lead them on war-game maneuvers. With some sage advice from Tom, Bob proceeds to kick butt and take names.
The maneuvers end with a visit to a prison asteroid. It's here that things go ill for Bob. Jim, his criminal brother talks Bob into allowing him to stowaway on the rocket so he can "prove my innocence." That's a trick, of course. Jim sneaks a couple of friends aboard, hijacking the ship and making their escape.
Bob is court-martialed and tossed out of the Academy. Soon after, he ships out on a freighter, then apparently turns outlaw himself and joins Jim's gang.
It's here that the character arcs begin to follow completely predictable patterns. Because OF COURSE Bob is working undercover to catch the outlaws. He is soon helping Tom and Astro to escape and go for help.
And OF COURSE Jim decides to side with his brother when Bob's life is at stake. To the surprise of no one, Jim ends up sacrificing himself to allow the cadets to escape. (These last panels, by the way, were printed in black-and-white on the inside back cover of the comic book.)
I'm okay with this, though. The story is well-constructed and the artwork--though a little weak in places--is imaginative. A theme like redemption is always a strong one. Perhaps that's why some elements are used often enough to become cliches--because they speak to something important about human nature. So, though cliches can often represent lazy writing, they will always be with us. And that isn't always a bad thing.
This comic is in the public domain, so you can read it HERE.
Next week, we'll follow along with Ben Grimm as he once again fights dinosaurs.
Monday, November 9, 2015
Friday, November 6, 2015
The Green Hornet: "Poor Substitutes for a Prison" 2/1/49
Click HERE to listen or download.
Click HERE to listen or download.