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Saturday, June 07, 2003 |
( 6/07/2003 04:32:00 PM ) Bill S.
"AIN'T HE UNGLAMOR-AIZE" - This piece wound up in a slightly different place than I originally expected it to go.
When I first starting thinking about doing a piece on the recently reissued Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk collection, I pretty much had my opening paragraph mentally written:
With the new Hulk movie about to hit theatres, there's a whole load of product being marketed around the Jolly Green Giant. Well, forget most of that crap. This book is all you need to know about the Hulk - as handled by the masters who created him: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.All properly condescending and fannish, right? Only one small problem: I hadn't read the stories collected in this book in over twenty years. Picking up the hardbound volume, which reprints issues #1 - 6 of the character’s short-lived debut title, I rediscovered what I'd forgotten. The early Lee & Kirby Hulk is far from definitive.
Before Marvel Comics snagged the superhero audience in a big way, they were a middling company whose primary output was monster comics: fright-free stories featuring towering creatures and grotesque alien invaders, scenes of mass destruction and seen-it-before twist endings. Kirby was especially adept at rendering impressive and imaginative creatures, a talent that he'd also put to good use with the line's first big superhero title, Fantastic Four. To readers who'd been following both the monster titles (Tales to Astonish, Journey into Mystery) and FF, 1962's The Incredible Hulk seemed to represent an ideal fusion: another Kirby monster and a tortured hero type.
Stan Lee has stated that he initially saw the Hulk as a cross between Frankenstein and Mister Hyde, but he and co-creator Kirby tossed other monster movies into the pot, too. His origin is straight out of an atom age drive-in pic like Bert Gordon's Amazing Colossal Man, while the earliest stories also took from the Wolfman, as nebbishy hero Bruce Banner only became the Hulk at night. Scripter Lee was not above duplicating himself either, as elements of the Hulk would also appear in Amazing Spider-Man: the cantankerous establishmentarian nemesis who forever vowed to get our hero (in Peter Parker's case, it was newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson; in Banner's, Army General "Thunderbolt" Ross), an easily imperiled girlfriend named Betty, the early adolescent sense that the whole world is spiraling against you. The Hulk, at least, had teenager Rick Jones for needed back-up.
It was Jones, after all, who got Dr Banner in the soup to begin with. As presented in Hulk #1, the boy foolishly ventures onto a desert testing area in his jalopy, unaware that the army is about to conduct a gamma bomb test. Banner, who's overseeing said test, sees the boy driving into danger and tells his shifty assistant Igor to hold the firing. Igor, a jealous type and a commie spy to boot, does no such thing. The bomb goes off after Banner has pushed the boy into the safety of a trench, bathing the scientist in those body altering gamma rays.
It's an origin that few retellings have bothered to completely replicate, and for good reason: it doesn't make a helluva lot of sense. Here's this big secret test being overseen by the military and yet the only guy to spy a big ol' car driving onto the testing range is Banner. When our hero miraculously survives the explosion, and the Hulk starts appearing immediately afterwards, no one stops to make the connection, even though his first transformation occurs while both Bruce and the boy are supposedly under medical observation. (One creepy unresolved bit from the origin issue: first time that Banner becomes the Hulk, he starts emitting radiation that makes a Geiger counter go wild - yet good old Rick, who's standing right next to him, is remarkably unaffected.) Small wonder that when Kenneth Johnson produced the live action Hulk TV series, for instance, he moved the transforming accident into Banner's private lab and did away with Jones altogether.
Some comics characters premiere fully fleshed (Spider-Man, for instance); others take time to develop. The Hulk definitely fits under that latter category. In his first appearances he's gray (more Frankensteiningly cadaverous), though he changed pigmentation by issue #2 - reportedly so he'd show up better on the pulpy pages. His transformation initially only took place at night, and instead of the half-articulate ("Smoke - goooood!") creature he would later become, the Version 1.0 Hulk was pretty chatty. He read like a more thuggish version of the Thing, in fact, but where Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm went around bemoaning the fact that he'd been turned into a big pile of orange rocks, the Hulk groused every time he had to turn back into puny Banner.
Not the most appealing of monsters, to be honest, and you can see Lee & Kirby struggling through the trial-and-error process throughout the first five issues (#6, which is drawn by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, mainly serves to point out the characters' commonalities). At one point, for instance, Rich Jones (who would seem to've been modeled after faux teen hipster Ed "Kookie" Byrnes, though later they dropped this aspect of the character) develops a mental connection to the Hulk, which gives him the ability to make the monster do his bidding. This only lasted for a couple of issues. Banner's nightly transformations were also quickly dropped, and for a time he seemed to control the changes with a big-ass gamma ray machine. This too proved unviable in the long run. The childlike rage-a-holic Hulk that we know and love wouldn't come into being until after the character's title was cancelled and he got shunted off to share page space with another Marvel character (Ant/Giant-Man) in Tales to Astonish.
(Years later, a Marvel writer would attempt to explain all the variant Hulks as symptoms of a nascent multiple personality disorder deep within Banner's psyche: dubious psychologically, but you've gotta admire the effort.)
But if neither creators nor character are at their peak in this first Masterwork collection, it still is a load of fun. Kirby's art has its kinetic pleasures (especially fine in issue #3, where the Hulk takes on a circus of crooks - a two panel scene where old greenskin fells a rampaging elephant and sends a bunch of roustabouts flying shows where the Warchowskis drew part of their multi-Smith fight scene). I've gotta tell you, though: I don't think I ever saw my old man wearing a fedora in the early sixties.
Lee's scripting is fairly utilitarian (though he sure does love writing about "fate spinning its web"), while most of the plots basically rework standard Cold War kid fantasy conflicts. Three of the villains in the first six issues are communists (a fourth a vague Yellow Peril type); three claim to be from outer space (though one of these is actually a dirty Ruskie pretending to be an alien). Only two villains of note emerge at this time - the hypnotizing Ringmaster with his Circus of Crime, plus the aptly named underground overlord Tyrannus (who, in the manner of tyrannical overlords everywhere, gets a thing for our hero's girlfriend). The aliens, in particular, (the Toad Men!) read like they wandered in from some half-scripted Amazing Fantasy yarn.
Focus in these early books is as much on Rick Jones as it is the Hulk. Feeling understandable guilt over his role in Banner’s misfortune, he tags along after the behemoth, ineffectually struggling to keep him from rampaging. (If the Hulk didn't regularly escape, after all, we wouldn't have much of a story.) Time after time, Lee & Kirby end their tale with either the Hulk and Jones riding off into the sunset, or Jones exhaustedly posed outside a concrete dungeon that is temporarily holding the Hulk. With each transformation, we're told, the Hulk grows stronger and stronger. One day, that dungeon won't hold him and . . . what then? What then?
Marvel's new Masterworks series is the second full-fledged attempt at reprinting the line's early work in hardback form. The first run, which was initiated in the late eighties, received fannish criticism for its occasional coloring glitches and spotty publishing schedule. Not having copies of the original comics anymore, I can't tell if the coloring in the new edition is true or not - at least one bit of jaundiced pigmentation occurs in a page from issue #4. But I remember some pretty funky tints appearing in the old pulp pamphlets, too, so in a way any coloring snafus are in keeping with the spirit of the original twelve-cent books.
I was too broke during the first run of Masterworks to buy more than a few titles, so I'm personally glad to see 'em returning. But, revamped color or no revamped color, I'll probably only be buying volumes I don't already own. And though it's not on the current list of impending titles, I know I'd love to see a Hulk: Volume Two, containing the stories that dumbed the monster down and really revved the series. Now that would truly be the ne plus ultra of Hulkishness.
Friday, June 06, 2003
( 6/06/2003 07:04:00 AM ) Bill S.
“RETURN, I WILL” – I have to do this every once in a while: I’d been playing so many new discs lately, listening to so many variations on current pop formula, that I was driven back into the musical archives. To heck with discs everybody else’ll be reviewing – let’s go back and revisit some long-unplayed faves! (Besides, I have nothing profound to say about Radiohead.) So I rolled my desk chair over to the CD shelves, scanned ‘em and grabbed a selection I’ve unreasonably loved since I first bought it as a Reprise long-player back in 1968: Geoff and Maria Muldaur’s Pottery Pie (Hannibal).
I came to this couple via the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, one of the few folk groups I would even deign to listen to in the late sixties. Both Geoff and Maria were vocalists for the Boston-based band, which took from the rollicking Memphis blues sound of such groups as the Memphis Shieks and tossed a love of corny Tin Pan Alley tunery into the brew. The group broke up after several releases for folk label Vanguard and its big-label long-player, Garden of Joy (hey, Rhino Handmade, why isn’t this platter on your reissue list?), and the Muldaurs moved to upstate New York, where all the hip happenin’ musicians were collecting. They recorded two albums before Geoff split the marriage to become a member of Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, and Maria had a short-term hit solo career with Maria Muldaur and “Midnight at the Oasis.”
Pottery Pie was their first solo disc, and it’s a strange and wonderful collection of eclectic hippie folkiness. The cover shows husband and wife lying in bed, Geoff holding what appears to be a self-help book on his lap, Maria reading a copy of Awake with an alarmist headline on its front cover, “Is it later than you think?” (This Apocalyptic question shows up in her version of “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations,” a country gospel number that lyrically riffs on Revelations.) Compared to her full-faced provocative poses on solo albums like Waitress in a Donut Shop, Miz M. seems pretty shy. Her sinuous vocals are anything but retiring, though.
Some folks have never fully cozied up to Maria’s wavery singing, but after years of listening to reed-thin alt types, I personally find it convincing: plaintive and playful, not to mention pretty darn sexy. Geoff’s voice sounds like something you’d hear on a forty-five from the thirties. It has elements of Tommy Johnson and other Mississippi moaners, but he can also assay a effective pop croon. Pie alternates vocals between Maria and her bluesy hubby, while Amos Garrett, a marvelously distinctive and underrated guitarman (who also can be heard on many of Geoff and Maria’s individual albums – in a lot of ways his snaky style was perfectly matched to both Muldaurs), provides able support throughout.
The disc opens with Geoff’s studly take on Erich Von Schmidt’s advice-to-the-lovelorn song, “Catch It” (very odd sounding horn break on this track), but it really catches fire with Maria’s come hither country pie remake of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Geoff’s charging version of “New Orleans Hopscop Blues,” a Bessie Smith classic, makes optimal use of his quavery blues voice.
The album takes an odd detour with the next three cuts: from joyful sexy romps to religious prophecy (the aforementioned “Trials” plus Maria’s acappella version of “Guide Me, O Great Jehovah”) along with a child’s western lullaby (“Prairie Lullaby”) by Geoff. But it immediately picks back up with the next track, Maria’s electric blues remake of Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” Whatever was going on in the woman’s head during “Jehovah” totally becomes irrelevant with this cut, especially when she and hubby trade moans and oh, honeys during the song’s extended finish. When Geoff jumps into a goofy remake of Xavier Cugat’s “Brazil” (yes, this version was used in Terry Gilliam’s movie), you’re grateful for the chance to cool down.
The last two cuts take the disc out on a strong note: Maria’s wistful remake of “Georgia on My Mind” anticipates her later duet with Hoagie Carmichael, while Geoff’s brooding version of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” is one of the most affecting vocals this unmatchable white blues singer ever cut – great throbbing guitar work from Garrett, too.
Like I said: a strange disc, that almost flies into some religio-kitsch wonderland in its center (not as strange a place as former band leader Jim Kweskin landed, but that’s another story), then soars into a great blues/pop concoction. Let’s hear it for idiosyncratic musicology!
When I first started thinking of this disc, I did a quick check on Amazon to see if the Hannibal/Rykodisc reissue that I’d bought in the mid-nineties was still available. It’s not, though there’s an import CD around of both Pie and the duo’s follow-up Sweet Potato around. Maria is quite active doing solo blues discs these days (her Richland Woman Blues disc is a great rural tribute), while Geoff is reportedly working on a big box tribute to Bix Beiderbecke. His ex-'s seventies pop albums can be found at bargain prices (have long enjoyed Maria's version of the Swallows’ “It Ain’t the Meat” on Donut Shop), while Rhino’s reissues of the Better Days’ albums (Better Days and It All Comes Back) are also primo (Muldaur’s take on Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk” is a mini-masterwork of persuasive indignation). The seventies post-breakup material isn’t as quirky as Pie (which some listeners will prefer), but it’s got plenty of diverse charms.
That was fun. Now where’d I shelve that Kweskin Jug Band best-of?
Thursday, June 05, 2003
( 6/05/2003 07:52:00 AM ) Bill S.
FANTA UPDATE – Read in ¡journalista! that the call to readers that’s gone over the web re: Fantagraphics’ dire financial straits has paid off – and the publishers hope to be able to make the $80,000 they require by the end of this week. I’m gratified to read this. Following the story on the comics websites, I read a lot of supportive writing – and a lot of petty axe-grinding, too – but in the end, the supportive was enough to stave off company bankruptcy. And though it means I’ll probably never be able to find a cheap remaindered copy of Rebel Visions at the Book Barn, this ultimately is a Good Thing for American comics as a whole.
I still plan on purchasing some books in mid-June; anything past that $80,000 will reportedly help to ease the company's lesser debts. And perhaps they'll be able to pay Dirk in more than foodstamps?
( 6/05/2003 06:42:00 AM ) Bill S.
“DON’T WATCH THAT – WATCH THIS!” – Watching the title hero of Keen Eddie, as he chased a portly suspect (Alexei Sayle, best known in the U.S. for his roles on The Young Ones) through a London market to the strains of Madness’ “One Step Beyond,” I found myself thinking so this is how we treat our allies these days.
Consider: twenty-five years ago, when we flew an American fish-out-of-water to Swingin’ England, it was John Wayne in Brannigan. Now it’s this goofball: a twenty-something N.Y. cop (Mark Valley) who in the first five minutes of the pilot nearly burns down his own apartment. (He has a map of the city, see, where he charts his busts with unused matchbooks.) Keen Eddie Arlette owns a pit bull named Pete with a predilection for humping cats and attacking his own master, plus that brand of willful Yank ignorance we’re supposed to find endearing but could really get old after two episodes. This guy is so America-centric that he doesn’t know if British currency comes in grams or pounds – something any fifth grade kid with a passing knowledge of Sherlock Holmes could tell you in an instant. Watching our hero fumble his way ‘round London Town, you can only come to this conclusion: man, our public education system really does suck!
Eddie’s been sent to Eng-a-land with Pete to catch the figures in a drug-smuggling ring that’s been distributing oxycodene in souvenir statues of Big Ben. (So what you have, then, is a gang disseminating stuff to other Britishers via tacky souvenirs of the town where they reside.) Arlette is the only one to’ve seen two key players – a sultry brunette who has his dick wrapped around her manicured finger, plus the aforementioned Sayle, who claims to be a pharmaceutical whiz. With the aid of Scotland Yard (and a randy Detective Inspector named, I kid you now, Monty Pippin), he finds the latter. But by the time he’s uncovered the vixenish bird’s digs, she’s already flown, presumably so she can torment our hero in later episodes.
There’s a bantering boy/girl subplot, too, of course. Eddie’s forced to share a flat with a leggy blond student named Fiona (Sienna Miller), who’s dismayed to learn her mother has sublet the place over the summer. Fiona wants the flat all to herself, so she can hump her weedy boyfriend, but that’s clearly not gonna happen. So in addition to cross-cultural conflict, the Keen One also has his share of sexual conflict. I see a heated-argument-broken-by-a-kiss in this duo’s future.
By summer fill-in standards, Keen Eddie isn’t bad. But it definitely is weak tea compared to last year’s summer break-out hit, Monk. (Sorry, Eddie, but Adrian outdoes you on both the sleuthing and the pratfalls!) I chuckled at a few moments: a scene in a dance club where the music is so loud that our copper’s interrogation has to be subtitled was a highlight (it always bothered me on Buffy when characters were able to easily converse in the Bronze while some alt band was flingin' feedback across the room), and I also was amused when they filmed the ep’s climactic bust to the sound of a concurrent soccer game, then showed the big arrest as an Instant Replay. Small jokes, sure, but it beats watching American Idol for Pedophiles.
Our hero stays on at Scotland Yard, of course: he may be a doofus, but he GETS RESULTS even with his foot stuck in a milk carton when pursued by bad guys. One of the last things we see him doing is putting up a new map of London and pinning his first unused matchbook to it. If I were Fiona, I’d double-check the renter's insurance.
Tuesday, June 03, 2003
( 6/03/2003 10:13:00 AM ) Bill S.
I OWN ONE OF THEM TIES, INCIDENTALLY – Think I’m finally getting near the satiation point re: emo/pop-punk/swoosh-&-chord bands. (Yeah, I know most smart fans reached it months ago.) Bought a cheap Wal-Mart copy of the Ataris’ major label debut, so long astoria (Columbia), and found my attention wandering pretty quickly after I hit “play.” Only thing to bring it back was a sped-up remake of that VH-1 standard, Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” A pretty respectable cover, think I, noting that the gang indulge in one small apt lyrical update. Instead of referring to a “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,” the Ataris track describes a “Black Flag sticker.” The revision makes sense. Henley’s original contrasting observation lost whatever ironic power it may’ve possessed years ago – probably around the time Jerry Garcia started painting expensive designer ties.
( 6/03/2003 09:10:00 AM ) Bill S.
“TAKE A DAY – AND WALK AROUND . . .” – Comedian Larry Miller (a fairly conservative guy from what I can tell by his Bill Maher appearances) has a column up on the Weekly Standard about the current blasé feeling many of us have about current events in this post-war era. I remain wary of even humor pieces that purport to have their finger on the pulse of Average Americans. But I also have to admit it’s been a while since I’ve written anything too political on this blog.
The issue is less one of exhaustion and more related to the simple fact that I don’t feel like I have much to add to the discourse already out there. My beliefs on the Weapons of Mass Destruction thing, for instance, pretty much parallel Josh Marshall’s (that the Bush Administration – not just Powell, not the just intelligence community – put so much stock in the “immediate danger” posed by Saddam’s possession of WMDs that they deserve to be publicly embarrassed when no such armory is uncovered: doesn’t mean that Iraq wasn’t preparing to have a viable full-scale WMD program or that the war was in the end unjustified, but it does mean that the Bushies were playing fast-and-loose with the truth). So when Marshall is able to present the argument with thrice the speed and facility of this poor pop culture geek, I just sit back, read him and go, “Nuthin’ I can add to that!”
Same goes with the freedom of speech issue: a matter that I, as a sporadically paid free-lancer, have a stronger connection to. There’s been a ton of discussion of this topic in the wake of 9-11, and much of it can be boiled down to two stances: fear that free speech is being restricted and sneering condescension over the hyperbolic rhetoric frequently used by free speech advocates. (We ain’t quite Nazi Germany yet!) I don’t disagree with either point, and I also recognize that it’s an important part of the democratic process to have both perspectives repeatedly aired. Like walking the dog: if you don’t do it regularly, you have an unhealthy and neurotic pooch. But, at this point in the debate, I don’t think I have anything new to bring to the table.
Which doesn’t mean I won’t eventually post some half-baked poli-screed on this blog – or that I’m through with political ruminations now that the war has ended: just that I’m busy reading old Hulk stories now – and feel much more inclined to write about that. Maybe I am blasé after all. . .
( 6/03/2003 05:36:00 AM ) Bill S.
FACTORY SEALED FOR YOUR PROTECTION – So I get a copy of the new Marvel Masterworks hardbound reprint of The Hulk’s first six issues (about which, more later) on eBay for $26.00, tear off the plastic wrapping that the book comes in to protect its insides from sweaty fingerprints and a question arises that I’m surprised I haven’t considered before. Opening the book, I can read a selling blurb on the inside left dust cover. It’s the same Barnumesque blurb Marvel pretty much uses on all these hardbound reprints (“Within these pages lurk the amazing, the uncanny, and the most spectacular characters the world has ever seen!”) but the thing that puzzles me is: why is it even there? These volumes, like DC Archives hardbacks, are sold sealed in plastic, so nobody can read the dustcover sales pitch ‘til they’ve already bought the book! Who they trying to sell?
UPDATE: ADD (hey, happy belated blog birthday, Alan!) reasonably answers my frivolous question in the Comments section below. (I should be spending more time in real bookstores.) Doane's Comic Book Galaxy has a contest going for Alan Moore fans, incidentally, which I meant to mention when it first started up, but it typically flew out of my mind when it actually came time to post something. Some day I'd like to visit the Island of Uncompleted Bloggings.
( 6/03/2003 05:34:00 AM ) Bill S.
NO SUCH THING AS A FREE RIDE – From Mark Evanier comes a link to the news that Johnny and Edgar Winters’ suit against a DC Jonah Hex mini-series featuring a parody of ‘em has been turned down by the California Supreme Court. Good news for those of us who believe that being rendered parodically as a giant mutant worm creature ain’t necessarily a bad thing. Now, hopefully, DC will go about reprinting the Joe Lansdale/Tim Truman mini-series alongside their first Hex Vertigo collection, Two-Gun Mojo. (Does Lansdale have it in his contract that every third book of his will contain the word "mojo" in its title?)
UPDATE: According to Dirk Deppey, DC isn’t out of the woods yet, since the court send back a ruling on the fact that the company reportedly used the Winters Bros.’ names in advertising for the mini-series. The beat, as Mister Sonny Bono once noted, goes on. Guess I'll have to seek this series out in pamphlet form on eBay. . .
Monday, June 02, 2003
( 6/02/2003 06:19:00 PM ) Bill S.
“MOVE OVER LITTLE DAWG, ‘CAUSE THE BIG DAWG’S MOVING IN!” – The Fisher clan wrapped up their third season on HBO’s Six Feet Under in an episode that captured both the highs and lows of this erratic, but enjoyable dark comic soap. After a season opener that promised more than the full season delivered (creator Alan Ball playing wittily metaphysical with Nate Fisher’s near-death brain surgery), this year’s remaining offerings steered too close toward serial melodrama, often at the expense of the show’s trademark caustic humor.
Sunday’s capper, written by Jill Soloway and directed by Ball, had its good moments, both comic and dramatic. Among them:
Frankly, after last year’s disappointing season of The Sopranos, I was looking to the Fishers to fill in for Tony & kin in the Dysfunctional Family Derby. (At least Six Feet kept its eye on its focal family – even when we wished it would’ve looked elsewhere.) That they didn’t quite make it demonstrates, I guess, how hard really good grown-up television can be to write on a regular basis. . .
Sunday, June 01, 2003
( 6/01/2003 11:50:00 AM ) Bill S.
BUREAU OF ODD COMPARISONS – Caught half of Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, and all of the recent adaptation of Nick Hornsby’s About A Boy starring Hugh Grant yesterday. And perhaps it was sparked by the fact that both movies contained Roberta Flack tunes (her version of “First Time Every I Saw Your Face” was first heard in Misty, while Boy wraps its conclusion around a performance of “Killing Me Softly”), but I found myself comparing the two pics.
Both movies – one a suspenseful stalker tale, the other a rueful British comedy of modern manners – center around a thirtyish manchild who gets prodded into maturity through the actions of a mentally ill woman. Watching the two back-to-back, I couldn’t help coming to the following conclusion: most men don’t grow up unless you do something really extreme to ‘em. Like saddle ‘em with a parental child. Or try to kill their cleaning lady. . .