Back with our occasional look at odd moments in comic books.
It’s easy to forget how crazy much of DC’s Golden Age was. Batman was fighting space monsters, Lois Lane was scheming to discover Superman’s identity – and marry him – and Superman was constantly falling in love with mermaids and the like.
Or getting fixed up, like in Action Comics 289, which came out in June 1962.
In a plot that could be adapted as a Kate Hudson romantic comedy, Supergirl, worried about her cousin Superman’s loneliness, keeps trying to fix him up. Potential mates include Helen of Troy and members of the far-future Legion of Superheroes.
Ultimately, Supergirl finds a perfect match for her cousin. And what the hey – she looks just like a slightly-older Supergirl!
Some feverish dreaming going on there, among fans and in the DC editorial offices.
In the 1970s, I was reading everything that Stephen King wrote as fast as I could get my hands on it. I always thought “The Dead Zone,” his 1979 novel of a man with psychic powers trying to live a normal life and, failing that, trying to stop an apocalypse, ranked right up there with his work of the time, including “Salem’s Lot” and “The Stand.”
And I thought director David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation of King’s book was among the best movie versions of the author’s work. Much better than Kubrick’s “The Shining,” for example.
Watching “The Dead Zone” again recently, I think it’s held up remarkably well. The story is a pretty timeless one of love and loss and its small-town setting keeps everything from looking too dated.
Christopher Walken – who has, in the 30-plus years since “The Dead Zone” was released, become an icon and has verged on self-parody – plays John Smith, a Maine school teacher looking forward to marrying his girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams).
But Smith has an accident and is in a coma for five years. Although his parents are still around, Sarah has married someone else and had a young child.
Before he even gets out of bed, Johnny discovers another change: His coma has apparently awakened within him a psychic ability. If he touches someone, he can read their mind and see visions of their future. He is even able to tell his doctor, played by Herbert Lom, that his mother, separated from him in Europe in World War II, is still alive.
Not surprisingly, this unexpected talent doesn’t bring Johnny any peace of mind or comfort. Particularly when he touches the hand of a huckstering politician, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) and sees that he’s destined to one day be elected president and bring about the end of the world.
King’s book has more layers, but Cronenberg’s movie does a pretty good job of capturing the details and somber mood of King’s story.
Johnny is a haunted man, a man who can see everyone else’s future but has no future of his own, and the character is perfectly played by the Christopher Walken of 1983. The actor hadn’t yet become so familiar to us, through offbeat characters in movies like “Pulp Fiction” and through TV appearances on “Saturday Night Live” (“I pranked him in my basement”). We had a bad feeling about Johnny Smith just by looking at Walken’s pale and pained face.
Cronenberg’s movie feels as fresh as if it was made just a few years ago, thanks in part to its lack of trendy-at-the-time touches and the chilly blue-gray “look.”
It’s startling seeing Sheen as a maniacal, murderous president. That’s President Bartlet, man!
“The Dead Zone” makes me wonder why Brooke Adams, so good in this and the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remake, didn’t have a longer movie career.
Lom, who played “The Phantom of the Opera” way back in the 1960s and the nemesis of Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” movies in the 1970s, is a nice, steadying presence here.
Anthony Zerbe, one of my favorite character actors of the 1970s, is likewise welcome here as a potential campaign donor who sees through Stillson’s shtick.
I’ve noted it here before – as have many elsewhere – but it’s hard to overstate the importance of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine to a generation of movie fans and, in particular, horror movie fans.
When FM appeared on newsstands in 1958 – before I was born, no less reading it – the Shock Theater package of old Universal horror films was playing on TV stations around the country, often hosted by an over-the-top character like Sammy Terry here in Indiana.
FM, published by Warren Publishing and edited by Forrest J Ackerman, greatly appealed to the audience of horror movie fans – including me, when I discovered it a few years later.
My relationship with my collection of FMs was a complicated one. I never had a complete run of the magazine, although I had most of them, between buying them new each month on the newsstand and buying back issues.
Then, possessed of the insane writer/designer spirit that led to my actual career, I cut up many of my issues, rearranging photos and articles in scrapbooks in my own fashion.
I bought many of the old issues again, years later, before selling off most of my collection a couple of decades ago.
I kept my copy of “The Best from Famous Monsters of Filmland,” however, and wanted to mention it here in this edition of the Essential Geek Library.
Published in June 1964 by Paperback Library with a cover price of 50 cents, the book was a paperback-sized, 162 page reprint, basically, of some Famous Monsters articles from 1958 through 1960.
Individual articles bore such titles as “Monsters are Good for You,” “Alice in Monsterland,” “The Frankenstein Story” and “Girls Will Be Ghouls.”
Littered with Ackerman’s trademark puns – “Kong-fidentially Yours” – the book offered not only an enthusiastic defense of monster movies but inside information, including the number of models and armatures that were used in making “King Kong,” (27, Ackerman says. In a visit to his house in the Los Angeles area in the 1980s, I got to see one of those armatures, which was nothing but a metal skeleton with bits of material clinging to it by that point.)
I’m not sure when I picked up my copy of “The Best of …” but I’m guessing it was years after publication. It’s in pretty good shape but battered by years of reading, over and over again, by me and the previous owners.
Online sources indicate Warren and Forry published at least three paperback reprint collections of FM articles, following “The Best From …” with “Son of …” and “Famous Monsters of Filmland Strike Back.”
They were just what all of us monster kids wanted and we loved ‘em.
Here’s a pointless exercise but maybe a fun one.
I decided to rank, in order of how much I enjoyed them/how good I thought they were, the big-screen Marvel movies.
It’s not too hard to tell that I prefer the official Marvel Cinematic Universe movies over the random Fox and Sony movies, I know.
A few provisos:
I’m not dipping back into pre-history far enough to drag “Howard the Duck” into this. And I haven’t seen it in a couple decades.
And I’m not including the 1994 “Fantastic Four” movie because it wasn’t released – I’ve only seen it on a bootleg DVD bought at a convention – and it doesn’t belong on this list any more than the awful “Captain America” TV movies do. Same for the “Blade” movies, which had their moments but seem as remote as the 1944 “Captain America” serial now.
Be aware, I’ve only glimpsed moments of the “Ghost Rider” movies on TV. And I’ve never seen the “Punisher” movies at all.
Two lists: First, just the “official” Marvel movies, then the list with the non-Marvel-overseen movies mixed in.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Thor: The Dark World
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 3
Iron Man 2
If you add the other post-2000 Marvel movies that aren’t part of the official Marvel Cinematic Universe into the mix, it’s still weighted pretty heavy toward the official Marvel canon.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Thor: The Dark World
X-Men: First Class
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 3
The Amazing Spider-Man
Iron Man 2
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Looking at that list, it seems like “Iron Man 3″ is way too far down. But maybe not. I need to see it again.
Something tells me my list will see a big shake-up next month, when “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” opens.
I doubt I’ll be watching much, if any, of the Oscars tonight.
It’s not a protest of anything, or a statement about anything, including Ellen, the host.
I just feel more disconnect with the Academy Awards than I ever have.
For one thing, I haven’t seen a single one of the nine Best Picture nominees. I want to see at least three or four of them, but my schedule doesn’t encourage a lot of movie-going. And when it does, frankly, I really like escapist fare. Not that I didn’t see, and enjoy, movies like last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” But – and if you’re a reader of this blog, I don’t have to tell you this – I’m more likely to see the latest big-screen comic book adventure or action movie or comedy.
So other than tuning in to see what could be some funny stuff from Ellen at the opening, I’ll probably do other things until “The Walking Dead” comes on and then I’ll be watching it.
One reason I’m startled by my disconnect with the Oscars and movies in general is that I was a movie reviewer from 1978 to 1990. I saw two or three movies every week – during a period that was pretty good for movies of a certain type – and wrote about them. I loved Oscar night. I did my own predictions and sometimes the winners even coincided with my picks.
But tonight I’ll check out Ellen and undoubtedly enjoy Twitter comments by people who are watching. I’ll be amused, as always, by people who complain that the Oscar telecast runs long, like it doesn’t every year.
And if the show seems too long to you, why are you watching? There’s room alongside me on the couch for someone with an actual excuse as to why they’re not watching.
But I’ll catch up tomorrow.
Yeah, that looks pretty good.
The CW has released a picture of Grant Gustin in the headpiece he’ll wear in the upcoming CW series “The Flash,” a spin0ff of “Arrow.”
It’s dark-ish, but so was the costume for the 1990 “Flash” series starring John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen.
Shipp, by the way, has been cast in a recurring role on the new series. Here’s hoping for Jay Garrick.
Some other notable looks for the Flash:
The evolution of the character and costume in the DC comics.
The best presentation of the Flash, in the person of Wally West, from “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” animated series.
And, just for fun, the failed “Justice League” TV pilot.
Richard Donner’s “Superman” movies and Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies – and their sometimes regrettable sequels – came before, of course, but Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” really kicked off the big-screen superhero genre in 2000, and the trend was solidified a couple of years later by Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.”
But during the “lost in the wilderness” years of the the 1990s, the studios tried not once, not twice, but three times to capture the spirit of the superhero genre as typified by the great pulp magazine-style heroes, the forefathers to comics.
“The Rocketeer” came first in 1991 and was probably the most successful. “The Shadow” came in 1994 and did a pretty good job of hitting all the key elements of the most popular radio and pulp hero of them all.
Then there was “The Phantom.”
The 1996 Simon Wincer movie, starring Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Treat Williams and Billy Zane as the Ghost Who Walks, was certainly faithful to Lee Falk’s original comic-strip hero.
Maybe too faithful.
If you’re not familiar with the Phantom himself, the character was born in newspaper comic strips in 1936 and continues to this day. The Phantom is Kit Walker, the 21st in a series of fathers and sons who – following the 14th-century murder of a father, prompting a son to vow vengeance and the upholding of law and order – has kept the peace around the world and battled evil accompanied by his wolf companion, Devil, and his horse, Hero.
The Phantom is notable for some cool characteristics, including his twin handguns, the skull ring – whose imprint is left on bad guys’ jaws – and the legend that has been cultivated around him: He’s known as the Ghost Who Walks because criminals – a superstitious and cowardly lot, as Batman could tell you – believe he’s immortal rather than just the latest in a long family of crimefighters.
Falk created “The Phantom” after his newspaper syndicate asked for a follow-up to his “Mandrake the Magician.” In creating the Phantom, Falk invented a couple of superhero conventions, including the skin-tight costume and pupil-less eyes behind the hero’s mask.
“The Phantom” movie had the courage of its convictions, certainly. Its tale – the Phantom tries to protect a set of magical skull carvings and keep them out of the hands of a wealthy villain (Williams) – goes through the correct motions. Switching back and forth from the remote island home of the Phantom to New York City, the hero is aided by a spunky newspaper reporter (Swanson) and everything is complicated by the femme fatale played by Zeta-Jones. And what a revelation she was here. I really wanted her to play Wonder Woman after seeing her here and in another, better superhero 1990s movie, “The Mask of Zorro.”
There are pirates and submarines and seaplanes and immense sets and some action set-pieces, some better than others.
Zane leaves a lot of people cold – including me – but he’s really pretty good here as the Phantom. He nicely underplays the role, tossing off jokes and filling out the purple outfit about as well as anyone can. I was as frustrated as anyone by the black leather “X-Men” outfits, but maybe the world just wasn’t ready for purple spandex. And striped shorts.
As much as Zane underplays his part, Williams seems to have been told to overplay every line. I guess he’s being a good sport and the “Power Rangers” villain delivery would at least come across as non–threatening to kids in the audience. While the character is amusing, a villain who’s never truly threatening is not a great villain.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a big-screen movie that so desperately wanted to be “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (I’m not counting the low-budget knock-offs here.) From the 1930s setting to the rickety bridge crossing that ends with the heroes swinging to safety to the ancient relics that magically illuminate a spot on a map to the villains that go “boom” at the end, “The Phantom” tries to strike so many “Raiders” grace notes it’s almost bizarre. Maybe that’s not a a surprise: Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam wrote “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” a far better film.
“The Phantom” is worth seeing if you never have or if, like me, you haven’t in 18 years. It’ll seem like something of an awkward artifact because of the string of superheroes that followed it into theaters beginning just four years later, though.
Purple tights or no.
The third-season premiere of TNT’s continuation of “Dallas” aired last night and I was missing Larry Hagman.
Although Hagman’s illness reduced his presence on the first two seasons of the new take on the classic nighttime soap, I have to say I wish that, before his death, producer Cynthia Cidre had shot several hours of Hagman talking on the phone, riding in the back of a limo and just walking across the room that she could generously salt through upcoming seasons.
But I guess that wouldn’t be right.
Anyway, in this, its first season without the venerable J.R. Ewing, “Dallas” will have to make its way on its own soapy power. I think it can do this … if it gives us a few things we want to see.
Plenty of the young’uns. I’m really growing to like the new generation of Ewings. Josh Henderson (John Ross) and Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher) are getting to be pretty good antagonists and I’ve already fallen for Julie Gonzalo as Pamela and Jordana Brewster as Elena.
But plenty of the original Ewings too. Patrick Duffy is stalwart as Bobby and Linda Gray is plainly filling the Hagman role in some scenes with their son John Ross this season. I’m enjoying both. And even though I’m wincing at the thought they’re going to have Sue Ellen fall off the wagon and begin drinking again, it would give Gray, a wonderful soap opera actress, a juicy season.
Faces from the original “Dallas.” We’re seeing plenty of Ken Kercheval (who is 78!) as Cliff Barnes, but I want to see more of Gary Ewing and Lucy Ewing and Val Ewing and Ray Krebbs. I’d really enjoy seeing Ted Shackelford in several episodes, clashing with nephew John Ross over the fate of Southfork.
More of Judith Light. Last season, the “Who’s the Boss” star made a big impression as the mother of Mitch Pileggi’s character … despite the fact that Light is, at 65, just four years older than her on-screen son. I didn’t like Light much when she first appeared, but she’s just the right kind of looney character the show could use.
The drama. The drama. Not just drama from the Ewing Global boardroom, but from Southfork, where it looks like most of the characters will be in residence this season. We need more dinner scenes with all the Ewings staring daggers at each other from their spots around the bar.
Here’s to another good season.
Cherie Priest has been the best working purveyor of steampunk – the genre that mixes sci-fi, alternate history and 19th-century technology with a twist – for several years now with her “Clockwork Century” novels.
The series – and if you haven’t tried it, you should – is set around 1880 and presents an America that is pretty radically different from the history books we know: The Civil War still rages on, with battlefield skirmishes and Union and Confederate spies crossing borders in clandestine missions. Often the action plays out in a series of skirmishes not only on the ground, in horrifying lethal “dreadnaught” locomotives, and in the air in high-flying dirigibles.
As the war rages on, another menace proves to be a great threat. In the first book, “Boneshaker,” a digging machine opens up a fissure in the earth in Seattle that releases a yellow gas. The gas turns humans into flesh-eating creatures and, even more fiendishly, is used as the basis of a highly-addictive drug that soldiers and other combatants on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line willingly ingest, creating even more zombies.
By the time of “Fiddlehead,” Priest has brought these storylines together in an explosive climax. Gideon Bardsley, an ex-slave and scientist, has created the Fiddlehead, a steampunk computer that predicts that neither the Union nor the Confederacy will win the war. Both sides, weakened by nearly two decades of fighting, will be lost in a tide of zombies that will not only destroy the United States but the entire North American continent.
It’s up to Bardsley and Pinkerton Detective Agency operative Belle Boyd and their associates to stay alive long enough to get word out about Fiddlehead’s forecast – and stop the machinations of a war profiteer who hopes to use the zombie gas to not only make money but deal a devastating blow.
“Fiddlehead” is a fun thriller that not only brings back many of the characters from Priest’s earlier books – one of the author’s techniques is to mix up her sprawling cast, making some the leading players in some books and the supporting players in the next – but a couple of important figures who have been just outside the parameters of the page in the earlier books: Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant.
In Priest’s storyline, Lincoln wasn’t killed that April night in Ford’s Theatre, but he was seriously injured and had to leave the presidency. By the time “Fiddlehead” takes place, Lincoln and wife Mary are patrons of scientist Bardsley and thus leading the campaign to spread the word about the horrors of the zombie gas.
And Grant, wearing down in his fourth term in the White House and fighting his own demons, joins with Lincoln in turning back the murderous challenge from the war profiteers and behind-the-scenes manipulators who want to keep the war going.
Priest has created an engaging set of fictional characters but, to me, really shines in her treatment of fictionalized versions of real-life characters like Lincoln and Grant. Maybe it’s no surprise that readers would find themselves rooting for Lincoln, a beloved historical figure. But the Lincoln that Priest presents here is scarred and tough and scrappy as you would hope for.
Priest’s books are fun and clever and fast-moving fun-house-mirror looks at American history. With zombies. What more could we ask?