New Beginnings Prompts Looking Back, Episode 2

As I mentioned in Episode 1, I have moved into a new place that I am actually sharing with people after living alone for more than two decades.  This has been a wonderful experience and so to have I enjoyed blogging.  This new beginning has made me want to look back at how my attitudes toward genre have been shaped and how genre has shaped me.

In Episode 1 I talk about my first comic book in 1977 and how it didn’t impress me.  But by 1983 my world was very different.  I was in band and made friends with two bandmates, the brothers John and Rob.  John was a very, very good friend in school but we didn’t see much of each other after I left band in my junior year.  I wish I had stayed in touch with him, but we ended up at different colleges.  I was nonetheless very, very saddened by his passing in the early nineties.

When we were in high school, John and Rob lived in Island Park, a neighborhood of Portsmouth, RI.  In Island Park there was a comic book shop, Park Nostalgia.  John and Rob were avid comic book fans and prompted me to get into it as well.  The series they recommended most was Amazing Spiderman and Peter Parker, Spectacular Spiderman.  Both series were featuring a very cool villain at the time, the Hobgoblin.

My First Hobgoblin

I knew nothing about Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin.  But Hobgoblin quickly made an impression upon me.  What I liked most about Hobgoblin at the time was his use of the scientific method to advance his powers.  I caught up with the Hobgoblin at the point at which he had perfected the super-strength serum. He had a battle van.  He eventually made important improvements to his finger blasters (he put in a system that randomized his aim in an attempt to overcome Spidey’s spider sense).  I had decided in Seventh Grade that I was going to become a Computer Programmer and Hobgoblin fit in perfectly with my worldview.

Soon after my introduction to Spiderman, the brothers made it clear that a big event was coming to comic books.  Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars was soon upon us.

My First Big Comic Book Event

In Secret Wars, I am introduced to another villain that is intent upon using the scientific method to his advantage.  Doctor Doom spends the entire series hypothesizing courses of action that will gain him victory, putting each hypothesis into action and in the end he almost achieves complete victory.  Again I was enthralled.  Doctor Doom spoke to me as a budding technologist.

But looking back now, another reason I was so into Hobgoblin and Secret Wars is that John was into them as well.  I had a friend to share my fandom with.  We weren’t alone, most guys at school were into both Hobgoblin and Secret Wars and Secret Wars got much gossip on the school bus.  And this brings me to now.

I have some very, very close friends these days.  I am living at one of those friend’s homes.  This is very, very cool.  Looking back I realize that genre, and the bonds of fandom that come with it are a big part of how I meet people.  I have Major Depressive Disorder, and part of my symptoms include Social Anxiety Disorder.  I have a very hard time meeting and warming up to new people.  But since 1983, genre has been a big part of the way I overcome my Social Anxiety.  I have met people through work, but no one from work came to my 40th birthday party and I didn’t really miss them.  My 40th birthday party had family, some family friends and many, many friends I had made first by sharing genre.  The presence of so many friends is what kept me away from suicide during the worst of my depression.  Being around for me friends is what made me seek out psychiatric treatment.  And so it can be said quite literally that genre saved my life.

And look upon these words themselves.  This is a blog about genre, but I am sharing some info about myself that I really don’t discuss much.  Genre is changing my life even as we write/read, making me grow stronger.

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A New Beginning Prompts Some Looking Back, Episode 1

I moved this week, I now have a room next door to the Psychotronic Lounge.  I had been in the same place for 10-1/2 years.  Now for the first time in over two decades I am sharing space with other people.  This week has been quite refreshing, waking up and talking to people these last two mornings have been wonderful.  I am sharing space with other people and three or four weeks ago I also started blogging, basically sharing my thoughts with other people.  So in the interest of sharing, I thought I might look back upon my experiences with genre and show the key works that shaped my interests.

Something people may not know about me is that much of my knowledge about comic books comes from research.  I didn’t start collecting comic books until my freshman year of high school.  A future episode will cover that turning point, but this episode is about how I ended up coming so late to the party.

My first comic book was bought for me in the spring of 1977.  I was about 7-1/2 years old.  Omega The Unknown #8 featured a cover of a purple suited villain trying to beat the daylights out of a blue suited, 70’s hairdo hero.

My First Comic

The villain in this piece was awesome but the hero was awful to this young reader.  A decade later I would remember the villain fondly, including a vivid image of his defeat but I would be completely confused as to the hero was.  More on that later, back to the villain.  Nitro in this issue is super, super tough.  He is super strong.  He can explode and reform his body after exploding.  He can explode just his fist if he wants to.  And he has the most simple of motivations, defeat Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel?  I had no idea who the heck he was.  Here was this hero in a blue suit that I knew nothing about and the villain isn’t even interested in this hero.  Furthermore, the introspectives by this hero made it clear that he didn’t know diddly about Earth and what he had learned in the short time he had been here made him disgusted.  Speaking of introspection, this hero never ever says a word to Nitro.  In their fights, Nitro does all the talking.  The hero spends the entire issue lost in his own thoughts.

To my 7 year old mind, this comic didn’t work.  The villain is very, very good but the writing style was way over my head.  Before writing this blog I reread the issue (I bought a copy cheap on ebay a couple years back).  To my adult mind this is a masterpiece of storytelling.  Omega’s introspective nature reminds me much of myself.  If I were a superhero, I might forgo the witty banter so popular with the likes of Spiderman and Wolverine.  Omega is surely focused on defeating Nitro; but he is also concerned with how violent Earth is and how violent he is becoming so that he can fit in as a hero.  Furthermore, Omega defeats Nitro not with powers but with intelligence.  As Nitro powers up in order to blow Omega to smithereens (Omega finally pissed off Nitro enough to get his focus off Captain Marvel), Omega drops a titanium cylinder around Nitro channeling the blast up and through the roof.  I am so different as an adult compared to my 7 yr-old self and my view of this comic makes that abundantly clear.  However, that 7 yr old boy was so unhappy with the comic that he didn’t get into superheroes until he was 14.

As for Captain Marvel, I have the first appearance of Nitro is his book as well.  Another blogger in the Diodati Lodge bought me the issue for my 40th birthday.

Confused for Three Decades

Omega made so little impression on me that for decades I thought I had read the first appearance of Nitro.  Once I actually had Captain Marvel #34, I read that comic book and really couldn’t remember it.  A year later I reread it and started questioning whether that was my first comic or not.  Finally I decided to do a little digging on Nitro and actually try to locate the comic book that I read in 1977.  Using Comicvine I suceeded.

If I had read Captain Marvel #34 as a 7 yr old I would have been hooked on comics right then.  It has all the things a 7 yr old could want in a supehero story.  Captain Marvel is powerful, smart, courageous, has a cool rapport with Rick Jones and expresses himself verbally very well.  He’s not witty, instead he is more professorial.  I would have loved it.  But…

Reading the two books back-to-back this evening I realize how much more adult Omega The Unknown is.  Omega is a far more complex hero.  Neither he nor Captain Marvel are from Earth, but Captain Marvel feels right at home on Earth whereas Omega is still feeling very much like a fish out of water.  Captain Marvel is a warrior trained but he regrets killing Nitro (little did he know that Nitro would reform and plague someone else).  Omega was struggling to find his place as a warrior but knows in both his heart and mind that he has to destroy Nitro (he fails as well, Nitro is just really hard to kill).  The angle towards violence and war taken by Omega is just more adult.

The two books make clear how much I’ve changed personally over the decades.  Struggling with Major Depressive Disorder is guaranteed to do that to a guy.  And so I wrap up Episode 1 by commenting how Major Depression has made a positive impact on my life.  I now understand and appreciate introspection, shades of grey and muddled destinies.  Sitting here in my new bedroom I can look back upon my past and feel good about having grown up, even if it was decades late.

Founding Women of The Avengers : 1960 vs 2012

I have numerous philosophical problems with how women are so often presented in media, including sports and entertainment.  For example, I don’t collect risque photo shoots of women athletes.  I believe very strongly that successful women athletes should be celebrities because of their abilities and not have to resort to the sex symbol formula.  I’m rational enough to realize these women do these shoots because the are damn proud of their physical bodies, but it nonetheless rubs me the wrong way.  To me, sport is purer without the sexuality.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not preaching about using women as sex objects.  In the past I have bought playing cards or calendars based on the scantily clad beauties.  My concern is whether or not there is a place in athletics for sex symbols.  I simply don’t like my favorite athletes selling their sexuality.

And I also carry the same view with comic books.  Far too many depiction of women in comic books is “cheesecake”.  So many of our comic book heroines show way too much flesh.  I feel that these women are part of our modern heroic mythology and throwing as much cheesecake as possible on the page does not further that goal.  And so I come to the founding women of the Avengers, The Wasp of 1963 and Black Widow of 2012.  Take a look at these pictures:

Black Widow 2012 and The Wasp 1963

Neither of these women are in cheesecake mode. These are good looking women wearing uniforms that are sharp but utilitarian.  I love this.

The Black Widow of the modern film has much in common with the 1963 Wasp.  Neither has the big splash powers of their male counterparts.  Black Widow is very, very good with weapons but Hawkeye is godlike with his bow.  She is also a sound small unit combatant but she doesn’t have the battlefield brilliance of Captain America.  So in my opinion she is MORE COURAGEOUS than her male counterparts because she is going into a fight to the death with less resources.  Despite fewer resources, it is the Black Widow that closes the gate.

The Wasp in the 1960’s was written as a little ditzy.  Her powers were often belittled when compared to Hank Pym and her mood was more of that of an adventurer.  By all measures, the writers made it clear that she wasn’t as powerful as her male teammates.  But that doesn’t stop her from saving the day her fair share of times.  In one absolute must read (Avengers #8, Sept 1964), it is her quick thinking and tenacity that defeats Kang.  The men have Kang pinned down in Kang’s spaceship but can’t break through his forcefield.  The Wasp flies to Hank Pym’s lab, spots a weapon she thinks would be the right one for the job and then cybernetically commands some flying insects to carry the weapon back to the battle.  Her guess is right on the money and Pym uses the weapon to destroy Kang’s uniform – which unfortunately for Kang is the generator of his forcefield.  Kang flees.

I have always been a huge fan of The Wasp in comics.  Over time she grew into an excellent chairperson for the Avengers.  My favorite moment for her in the 80’s is during Secret Wars.  She is technically chairperson of The Avengers and yet she defers leadership to Captain America.  She knows that they are in deep doodoo and that the Captain America’s power of “Heroic Icon” is more important than the skills she brings, regardless of how superb they are.  It takes wisdom too realize when to relinquish command, and it is contrasted nicely in that series by Storm chafing at being outranked by Cyclops and Prof X.

Scarlet Johansson’s portrayal of Black Widow was phenomenal.  She has mad skills and she uses them effectively throughout the film.  When do or die time comes, she realizes that she is closer in power to the people she is trying to save compared to her male teammates.  But while she frets, it doesn’t interfere with her giving it her all and showing that even a mere mortal without enhancements can help save the day.  Her move to get to the gate is pure heroism.  She goes based on the simple premise that if raw power can’t close the gate, so perhaps finesse can.  And because she decides to go the finesse route, she is the perfect person to send.  She won’t be one to waste time trying powers, get a straight answer out of Selvig is the plan.

These are the portrayals of women I crave.  These are highly competent women without the gee-whizz powers.  Yet they are mission critical because of their heroism.  And they do so without having to show a bare midriff, huge expanses of cleavage or more thigh than you can shake a stick at.  Make no mistake, these are beautiful women and their beauty is part of their selling point.  But it is heroism and beauty they are selling to us, not sexuality.  This preserves the purity of the mythology and for this I am so pleased to have been able to soak in both.

Loki: 1960’s Comics vs Today’s Films

Loki in JIM #92, 1963

In 1963, the villain whose scheme pulled the Avengers together was Loki.  This holds true of the recently released film as well.

In the comics, Loki first appeared as a foe of Thor one year before The Avengers came out.  In the four appearances of Loki, the creative team established that:

1)  Loki is Thor’s adopted brother and his nom de guerre is “God of Mischief”

2)  Thor was responsible for Loki’s longest imprisonment on Asgard (trapped in a tree)

3)  Odin is really lousy at imprisoning Loki.  Loki can do all sorts of magic even while wrapped up in chains selected by Odin himself

4)  Loki wants to humiliate Thor more than he wants to destroy him

5)  Thor cannot hammer his way to victory against Loki, he has to outwit him

Only by the fourth appearance is Loki ready to dabble in a takeover of Asgard or the Earth.  But a couple months later, in the first issue of The Avengers, the stakes are raised.  Loki is now “God of Evil” and intends to defeat Thor once and for all.  To do so he needs to manipulate The Hulk and the Teen Brigade (a group of teens that work with Rick Jones to monitor and calm down Hulk).

And so here is my first peeve with the 1960’s.  Loki as the “God of Mischief” is quite in keeping with the original mythology.  The original mythology has Loki committing acts of mischief and often times committing trickery against giants or dwarves to atone for his misdeeds.  For example, it is from a consequence of some of Loki’s mischief that Mjolnir is forged in the first place.  Loki in myth is really helpful to Asgard on some occasions.  It is not until his worst crime, the death of Baldr, that Loki becomes outlaw and ends up imprisoned in a cave.  The 1960’s lack this evolution of the character from mischief maker to outright evil schemer.

The last two films with Loki explore how a guy can go from being a jerk to being a really dangerous evil genius.  For the Thor movie, Loki is pushed from mischief to evil because he finds out he is a child taken from the Frost Giants.  This startling revelation makes Loki rage.  He feels that his second fiddle status to Thor the entire time they are growing up is due to his heritage; a heritage that was hidden from him.  Once Loki falls into the abyss, he further blames Thor.  It should come as no surprise that in his wandering of the abyss that he finds someone more powerful that is also more evil and falls in with them.  It takes years of comics to come and go before they explore the rage of Loki as completely as the two movies do.

My second peeve with the 1960’s is how forced the episodes are that trick Loki into defeat.  In the first issue of The Avengers, it is Ant-Man who outwits Loki, and he doesn’t outwit him so much as get lucky that Loki is standing on a trapdoor.  Now it makes sense that Ant-Man be the one to out-trick Loki.  Ant-Man in the early Avengers comics was a thinker much more so than Iron Man who was hiding his Tony Stark identity.

But there’s way too much deus ex machina to tricking Loki.  In one issue of Journey Into Mystery, the Asgardian’s pose as members of the United Nations General Assembly.  How they convince a bureaucracy like that to take a powder in such a short time strains the suspension of disbelief.  On the other hand, Hulk crushes Loki because of a simple flaw in Loki’s way of thinking.  To Loki, Hulk is a dumb brute and should be too simple to be a threat.  Unfortunately for Loki, it is the fact that Hulk is so simple that gives Hulk the edge.  Hulk doesn’t debate, he doesn’t take offense and retort.  Hulk smash!

There is much about the 1960’s comics that I like, compared to today’s comics.  But there is even more I like about the films.  The films seem to give me the proper balance between too simplistic of schemes and too complex.  Part of the charm of the films is that they don’t have five decades of backstory, sometimes cool sometimes not, that hang on a character.  The comics have to tell new stories, and with five decades of storytelling these new stories will be major departures from the old stories in order to keep interest.  But instead of inventing new characters, which happened in the 1960’s, they hang on to decades old characters and twist them this way and that.  Loki is an excellent example of a character who in the comics has been twisted this way and that, even to the point of being transplanted in a female body.

There is a freshness to the films, a similar freshness that the 1960’s have.  A film has to retell the origins of all the characters because not every movie-goer is a comic book aficionado.  I accept that and look forward to it.  The retelling of Loki’s motivation is one of the highlights of this current crop of films.

Avengers Movie Vs Avengers #’s 1-3 : An Overview

Avengers: The Movie

The Avengers movie has grossed $1.4 billion world wide.  That is a superheroic amount of money.

But I seriously doubt this amount of money was ever envisioned by the creative team and managers of Marvel Comics in 1963.

I am happy to own the DVD-ROM called 40 Years of Avengers.  I also own the first few Marvel Masterworks featuring the Avengers.  I love these 1960’s comics – I also own some omnibuses of Iron Man, Hulk and DC Archives of The Justice League of America.  I enjoy reading the comics of the 1960’s and much of what I enjoy about the 1960’s is also present in the Avengers movie.  On the other hand, there are aspects of the Avengers movie that I find superior to the 1960’s.  This post is the first of several where I will be comparing and contrasting the movie to the first three issues of the Avengers comic book; Sept 1963 to Jan 1964.

Avengers: The Comic Books

The first three issues of the comic books has one particular theme that ties them all together – How Does The Incredible Hulk Fit In?  This is a big difference from the movie, which is about stopping Loki.  As can be seen from the covers, this story arc actually ends up using three different villains, namely Loki, The Space Phantom and The Submariner.

And this brings us to the first major point to ponder.  Which do you prefer more, a villain that has a grandiose scheme and needs to be stopped or a villain that is working out some personal issues with the heroes?  In issue #1, Loki manipulates the Hulk into destroying a bridge in front of a train.  Loki’s goal is to generate enough news that Thor will come out of semi-retirement to stop the Hulk’s rampage, whereupon Loki can spring a trap on Thor.  Issues #2 and #3 also lack any world shattering schemes.  The Space Phantom and The Submariner have decided to attack the Avengers simply because they are not the Fantastic Four and the villains hope they can score an easy victory.

The point of the comic books was to explore how very disparate heroes such as Iron Man and Thor can come together and work as a team.  Both of them had already had a few adventures as solo heroes before this book was published.  Ant Man and The Wasp had their own adventures as a duo.  So it makes sense that these first three issues explore what it takes to be a team.  The three comic books gives each hero a chance to show how his/her super powers can help, a chance to be humbled as his/her weaknesses and vulnerabilities are exploited and a chance for each hero to help cover and make-up for the vulnerabilities of their teammates.

Issue #3 is a marvelous telling of how as a team they are greater than the sum of the parts.  In the first half of Issue #3, Hulk wants to escape Iron Man, Thor and Giant Man/Ant Man.  Each of these heroes individually takes a crack at Hulk but fail to corral him.  In the second half of the issue, Hulk teams up with The Submariner to challenge the Avengers.  This time the Avengers work as a team instead of taking turns as individuals.  Thus they succeed in overcoming the combined might of Hulk and The Submariner.  It reminds me of a Bruce Lee film;  every time a gang attacks Bruce Lee their timing is such that he can take each thug out in turn.  The Avengers get past a similar shortcoming by attacking in twos or threes.

The movie also explores what it takes to make a team.  Iron Man and Captain America begin the film at odds and it takes a major sacrifice by a supporting character to get them on the same page.  As the movie moves into its climactic battle, the three headstrong powerhouses (Hulk, Thor and Iron Man) realize that Captain America has a handle on the grand tactics of the battle and they need to listen to him.  So the film does more than the early comic books, it explores both team making and also gives us a big juicy villainous plot.

I plan to tackle the nature of the big juicy villainous plot versus more immediate, personal plots in later posts.  Stay tuned as I ponder how one can make an Avengers movie that has the personal investment of the first Rambo movie, First Blood.

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