Archive for category Nerd Stuff

A dream of flying

Miracleman 2014 #1This week I got to read the first chapter of a truly legendary comic (insert cliche story hook here).

Imagine two of the greatest comics writers pouring their twisted genius into an epic tale, one that redefines what people think about superheroes. Yet the story is lost, and never finished.

Miracleman is that book. A revival of a British superhero from the 1950s (originally called Marvelman, and based on Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel), the title was resurrected by Alan Moore in 1982, and passed on to Neil Gaiman before its publisher went broke.

More than a decade of legal wrangling ensued, putting Miracleman at the center of an intractable copyright dispute, even by the standards of an industry that seems to thrive on litigiousness.

The battle ended earlier this week when the first reprinted issue–published by Marvel Comics–hit the stands. Gaiman will also get to finish his original story, an event that may be without precedent in the comics world.

So what’s the big deal?

In the Digital Age, it’s rare to be denied access to information or media, but since Miracleman was locked down in the 1990s, it’s been off limits until now.

The feeling was a lot like reading about a new sports car in a magazine, but never being able to drive it.

Any work by Alan Moore (or Neil Gaiman) is worth reading, but Miracleman is legendary because of Moore’s unhinged reconstitution of the superhero. It probably won’t be uplifting (no pun intended) but it promises to be as radical and unusual as anything with panels and word bubbles can be.

It all begins with a man who dreams of flying. For better or worse, that dream is about to become reality once again.

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The Space Rush

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launchThey say space is the final frontier, and like all terran frontiers, people are rushing to claim it.

In a way, we’re in the midst of a space-exploration renaissance, with a bizarre mix of nations, corporations, and random billionaires looking to stake their claim in the heavens.

Earlier this week, China announced that it had landed a robotic rover named Jade Rabbit on the Moon, while Iran is sending monkeys into space. Its the 1960s all over again.

Meanwhile, a host of private entities are making their way into space, helmed by a list of names that looks like it was generated by a random search of Wired.com.

There’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is already delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and hopes to modify its Dragon capsule to carry human passengers.

Then there’s Jeff Bezos’ mysterious Blue Origin, which is testing rockets and capsules at a top secret facility in Texas. Is Bezos trying to explore the galaxy, or conquer it?

Other, less practical schemes include Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to send a few (very wealthy) tourists to the edge of space soon, and Mars One, which plans to send colonists on a one-way trip to the red planet. Don’t laugh: there are already 200,000 volunteers.

While it may seem haphazard and–at times–zany, this should be encouraging for those who believe space exploration is an important pursuit.

That’s because while we’re a long way from Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, space exploration is taking on the exact same tone as nearly everything else humans do on a large scale.

Exploration purely for its own sake is a nice sentiment, but what really drives people is money and competition. Whether its the Cold War or potential business opportunities, things tend to get done faster when there’s another motive.

Today’s space pioneers may turn out to be more like the money-grubbing Ferengi or expansionist Romulans than Starfleet officers, but hopefully they will at least ensure that humans leave Earth orbit at all.

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A Superman for no seasons

Man of Steel posterHopes are high that Man of Steel, which opens today, will do the impossible and be a genuinely good Superman film in the modern sense, but I’m not so sure.

It’s not that I doubt the acting talent of Henry Cavill, or the directing talent of Zach Snyder. I just think they’ve got the wrong Superman.

“What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society intended?” Jor El asks as the camera focuses on a butterfly stuck in the chain of a swing in the trailer. Subtle.

As far as his biological parents are concerned, baby Kal El’s biggest problem won’t be dealing with the reality of being an orphan from a dead world, it will be growing up in one that’s too limiting.

As the trailer continues, the disembodied voice of Jor El encourages his son to be an example for humanity to strive for. How? Humans can’t shoot lasers from their eyes.

Obviously, a character that’s been around as long as Superman is open to interpretation but, so far, this version seems more like an Ayn Rand character than Superman.

The two most important elements of Superman are his powers and his background. The powers are self explanatory, but Man of Steel has changed Superman’s background for the worse.

Yes, he was born on Krypton, but he was rocketed to Smallville, Kansas as an infant. Raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, he was imbued with American values, not Kryptonian ones. He’s just as ignorant as the rest of us, he can just outrun a speeding bullet.

Superman isn’t an alien emissary sent to enlighten humanity; he’s a naturalized immigrant who just happens to have superpowers. He has the same values as the majority of people; he’s just in a position to act on them.

And while Superman has many amazing powers, super philosophy isn’t one of them. Throughout his career, he’s been more than happy to defend the status quo. Remember “Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”

Even in his more rebellious days during the 1930s, Superman’s ideas about social problems tended to conform to his human readers’. His ideas of social justice fit comfortably with FDR’s New Deal, and the only he time he intervened on a global scale to stop a non-super threat was when he dragged Hitler and Stalin to the League of Nations in a bid to prevent World War II (DC probably doesn’t consider this story canon).

In fact, Superman’s passivity has earned him more than a little ridicule from fans. His reputation as the “Big Blue Boy Scout” is so resilient that Frank Miller even turned him into a government lackey in The Dark Knight Returns, blindly following the orders of a Reagan-esque president.

Superman may be the original superhero, but the lack of conflict in his story has made it hard to keep him appealing to comics readers or moviegoers. Forcing Superman to confront the people he protects will definitely add conflict to the story of Man of Steel, but at the expense of his original characterization.

If the movie is anything like the trailer, this new, more alien, self-righteous Superman won’t be a good substitute for the one lifting a car on the cover of Action Comics #1.

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Superman: one blogger’s essential reading list

Action Comics 122 coverSuperman may be the first superhero, but he’s also one of the least popular. From his spit-curled and square-jawed visage to his ability to move faster than a speeding bullet, Superman is the perfect defender of justice. That also makes him perfectly boring.

In an age of sophisticated comics readers, and the wonderfully conflicted and nuanced heroes they demand, the guy known as the Big Blue Boy Scout doesn’t have much to offer.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Growing up, I always preferred Green Lantern and Batman to Superman, but over the years I’ve found a few great stories that even the most jaded nerd will enjoy.

In honor of the premiere of Man of Steel, here are five depictions of Superman that helped me take him seriously. Hopefully they’ll give you a new appreciation for the Metropolis Kid too.

Superman and StalinSuperman: Red Son

If you’re having trouble taking a guy who wears blue tights and a cape seriously, this might be a good place to start. You don’t have to love Superman to find the idea of turning him into a Soviet dictator entertaining.

In this re-imagined tale, Kal-El’s rocket lands on a Soviet collective instead of the Kents’ farm, leaving him to grow up under the wing of that other Man of Steel, Joseph Stalin.

The concept isn’t just amusing, it’s well-executed. Writer Mark Millar rearranges the entire DC Universe around Superman’s change of allegiance, with tweaked versions of familiar characters both real and historical.

Justice LeagueJustice League

For some reason, DC has always been able to produce great animated versions of its characters. Justice League (and the expanded Justice League Unlimited) is a case in point.

Predictably, Superman becomes the de facto leader of the team, but he actually seems like a good choice for the role. He’s cool and affable, not just a strong man with a rigid Henry Manly-esque sense of honor.

Putting Superman amongst his superhero peers also takes him down a peg. With Batman, Wonder Woman, and others around to question some of his not-so-super judgment calls, we see that the Man of Steel isn’t infallible.

Superman vs Captain MarvelKingdom Come

Like Red Son, Kingdom Come out-of-continuity story, but it’s grimly realistic. In the near future world of Kingdom Come, the perpetual battles between superheroes and supervillains are starting to wear on humanity, and Superman is called on to reign in both sides.

This is Superman when he’s done playing nice; he’s not just enforcing order, he’s creating it. It’s a more serious focus on the character that focuses on the decisions that are normally glossed over in his quest for truth, justice, and the American Way.

If that’s not enough, there’s also spectacular artwork by Alex Ross and an epic fight between Superman and Captain Marvel, which is highly appropriate given the two characters’ intertwined history.

Superman 705 panelSuperman: Grounded

It’s not necessary to read all of Grounded, the last story arc before Superman was redesigned for the “New 52,” just the first four issues. They focus on Superman taking a walk across America, meeting real people and real problems.

After Kryptonian survivors prove they can’t live happily ever after on Earth in War of the Supermen, ordinary humans are starting to resent Kal-El’s presence. After all, even with Superman around, the world is a pretty terrible place. Plus, he causes a lot of collateral damage.

Comics sometimes have trouble addressing real world issues, but Grounded does better than most. It shows the obvious dichotomy between the existential threats that superheroes regularly deal with and the more mundane crimes they often don’t have time for.

Grounded also highlights an important truth about Superman. After rescuing a child from an abusive father (in issue 705), he tells police that the only thing needed to stop the abuse was,someone, anyone, with a pair of eyes, a voice, a phone and ten cents’ worth of compassion.” Like anyone else confronted with such a situation, once Superman knew it was happening, he knew what needed to be done.

Superman’s reflexive do-gooderism can be annoying sometimes, but here it works. We see that Superman has the same sense of right and wrong as most people; he’s just in a better position to act on it.

All-Star SupermanAll-Star Superman

Of course, what really makes Superman great isn’t his corn-fed characterization, it’s his powers. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman throws out origins and conflicts, and just focuses on Superman using his superpowers to do amazing things.

In this out-of-continuity story, a fatal radiation exposure leaves Superman with one year to live, and he decides to make the most of it. He performs 12 Herculean labors, including answering the Unanswerable Question and curing cancer.

Sometimes it’s nice to see Superman being just, well, super. After all, that’s what made him, and the entire superhero genre, when he first flashed his “S” symbol on the cover of a comic 75 years ago.

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Of robots and rockets

Pacific Rim and the Space RaceRobots and monsters! Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s soon-to-be blockbuster, sounds like pure nerd fantasy. Yet one aspect of the story sounds remarkably true.

In the film, humanity is attacked by giant monsters called kaiju, that emerge from an inter-dimensional portal in the Pacific Ocean. To stave off destruction (or worse, having to move inland) nations rally to build equally large fighting robots called jaegers.

The jaegers push the limit of what is technologically possible. They’re a bold vision tempered by the threat of imminent destruction.

Sound familiar? It should.

Strip away the monsters and robots, and you’ve got a scenario very similar to the one that led to the Space Race. Just as the characters in Pacific Rim live in constant fear of a kaiju attack, the real people of the 1950s and 1960s lived in constant fear of global nuclear war.

Instead of building robots, Cold War Americans and Soviets built rockets. Instead of defeating giant monsters, the goal was to demonstrate technological superiority and deny the enemy a foothold in outer space.

Sure, it’s easy to compare the fictional technological achievement of giant robots with the actual achievement of giant rockets like the Saturn V, but what really links Pacific Rim and the Space Race isn’t the human ability to create and wield technology, it’s the attitude that makes it happen.

The Cold War was, after all, the driving force behind the Space Race. In a 2006 New York Times interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, put it this way:

“What actually happened is that Sputnik lit a fire under our buns, and we said, “This is not good. The Soviet Union is our enemy and we have to beat them.”

Indeed, we wouldn’t have had sophisticated rocket technology or legions of trained pilots and engineers without the military.Pacific Rim and the Space Race

In that case, Pacific Rim might be a better explanation of the motivations behind human space exploration than Star Trek.

Still, there is a non-cynical way to look at this.

The positive side of both the jaeger and space programs is that they were all-out efforts that were pursued regardless of cost or chance of success. Humanity is capable of such feats, when it feels like it.

If humanity ever does face an existential threat that requires some awesome new form of technology to face, I’m confident we’ll be able to handle it; we’ve done it before. Solving global warming, on the other hand? Not so sure.

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Why “Into Darkness” will be a great Star Trek movie

Star Trek: Into Darkness posterI haven’t seen Star Trek: Into Darkness, but I know it will be good. How do I know? Because I love Star Trek, and that means having pretty low standards.

Let’s face it, the majority of the Star Trek canon is pretty bad, and it has been from the beginning.

Any viewer that (metaphorically) sets foot on the Original Series’ USS Enterprise, with its cheesy sets, pajama-wearing crew, and overacting captain, and decides to stay is truly dedicated.

Even when the Enterprise warped off to the big screen, and its increased budgets, there was still a lot to endure.

There were plots that didn’t just require fans to suspend disbelief, but to murder it, dissolve its body in acid, and dump the residue in the Gowanus Canal. Remember the sentient mass of space junk known as V’ger (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)? Or the alien masquerading as God on a planet at the center of the galaxy (The Final Frontier)? What does God need with a starship anyway?

Then there were the terrible attempts at comedy, like the one that led the main cast to spend an entire movie looking for whales on 20th century Earth (The Voyage Home), or the time Kirk and Spock sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around a campfire (Final Frontier).

Star Trek: The Final Frontier posterYet Star Trek fans stuck with the franchise through all of this and more.

Star Trek: The Next Generation brought more believable special effects and the gravitas of Patrick Stewart to the table, but even this honed and refined series had its missteps.

Remember the tim Dr. Crusher accidentally de-evolved the Enterprise crew (“Genesis”)? What about the time she fell in love with a ghost (“Sub Rosa”)? Every time she yells “The flame was plasma-based!” at the end of that episode, I die a little inside.

Then there were Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. All good series in their own ways, but never in a position to make up for the sins of the ones that came before.

So even if Into Darkness is the worst movie to air this year, it could still be among the best Star Trek films ever. It will definitely be better than Nemesis.

Over the years, Star Trek fans have demonstrated the same faith and patience that an actual five-year mission of space exploration would require. They’ve endured some pretty terrible schlock because the core ideas of Star Trek appeal to them.

That demonstrates the staying power of Gene Roddenberry’s vision for a future where people live in harmony and fulfill humanity’s potential. Or that people really like seeing movies with pointy-eared aliens. Either way, I can’t wait to see Into Darkness.

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Super serious

Iron Man 3I never thought I’d say this, but people are taking superheroes way too seriously.

By people, I mean film critics. They don’t seem to understand that superhero movies are based on comic books.

In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark won an impressive victory over a fire-breathing Aldrich Killian, but according to certain critics, he destroyed American culture in the process.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said the film exploited imagery of terrorism for cheap thrills, without addressing any of the issues behind that imagery, and said that releasing the film so soon after the Boston Marathon bombing shows that Hollywood is out of touch with the real world.

NPR’s Linda Holmes criticized Tony himself, lamenting that his egotism, wealth, and use of technology to cocoon himself make him the “new Captain America.” Steve Rogers doesn’t use remote controlled drones to fight his battles, right?

I’m not saying that Iron Man 3 deserves critical praise, in fact quite the opposite. For movies like this, being faithful to the comic books that form the source material is as important as artistic merit.

Tales of Suspense 50No movie with as many explosions as Iron Man 3 deserves a critic’s approval, but because dodging explosions is what Iron Man does in the comic books, that’s what he should be doing on the big screen.

While writers and directors do have to make certain decisions about how to transform a comic book character into a movie character, or even about which comic books to make movies of, critics still need to stop treating the resulting movies as if they materialized from thin air.

Certain things about Iron Man simply can’t be changed, like the fact that he’s a rich white guy, or that his arch enemy is a guy called The Mandarin, or that he fights people. Without those elements, the cinematic Iron Man might be more nuanced, but he wouldn’t be Iron Man.

Iron Man and most of his colleagues predate the movie craze that is enriching their owners, and many of the political issues they are now accused of exploiting. When Iron Man debuted in 1963, Osama bin Laden was six, and America was in the middle of the Cold War.

People seem to be aware of this. In “The Amazing Spider-Man and the Modern Comic Book Movie,” a dialogue with Dargis, the Times’ A.O. Scott notes that “our superheroes have been around for a very long time.”

Of course, superheroes are capable of changing with the times. Tony fought Soviet-themed villains like the Crimson Dynamo when they were still relevant, and The Mandarin has gradually shifted from an old school megalomaniacal villain into a terrorist.

Still, there are certain things that cannot be changed. In the same article on the “Modern Comic Book Movie,” Dargis acknowledges that superheroes predate the movies that depict them, and claims that is he problem.

“The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense,” she says.Iron Man first appearance

A team of white guys saving the world does seem inappropriate in our post-feminist, post-civil rights world, but this isn’t just any team of white guys, it’s the Avengers. They resonate because of who they are, not because they are white and male.

Superheroes are popular because people like them. They like the idea of them, and more importantly, they like specific characters like Iron Man and Captain America. That’s why, when a movie that does them justice (no pun intended) appears, they turn out in droves.

While it’s not impossible for a superhero movie to have an important message, or to meaningfully engage with important issues, that is all secondary to the “superhero” part of it.

If you’re looking for cultural critiques, Iron Man 3 is not the movie for you. If you want to see Iron Man in a movie, it is.

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