Sunday, 17 March 2013

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

I suspect comics are something like laws and sausages - perhaps it's best not to know how they're made.  This is a largely unedifying tale of the shysters, egomaniacs, cold-eyed capitalists and (oh so many) bitter, bitter comic book writers who created what I consider the richest and greatest mythology of modern times.
Quick - who was the first Marvel superhero?  Wrong.  It was the Human Torch back in 1939.  And not Johnny Storm either - this was an android who started off as Frankenstein experiment gone wrong, but quickly turned his powers to good.  He was followed by the anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner, then Captain America, co-created by comics book legend Jack Kirby.

A few years later, and it all seemed finished.  In the 50s nobody wanted to read about superheroes any more - at least not Marvel ones.  We could all be reading pirate comics today if it wasn't for Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, created by Jack Kirby and Marvel's Editor in Chief Stan Lee.  It was a pretty shoddy comic, all told, but it was exciting, brightly coloured, modern, and, well, fantastic.  More than that - it was unexpectedly realistic, with convincing and nuanced relationships between the characters.  In the next year or two the Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man the X-Men and pretty much all the top superheroes were in place.  Even Captain America was taken off ice.

Since I've brought up Lee and Kirby, time to address one of the biggest issues in Marvel's history - the ferocious feuds.  A hell of a lot of energy seems to have been spent over the decades arguing about who really created which character.  I suppose it's a good topic for people with a lot of free time on their hands to obssess about, because of course there's no right or wrong answer.  These characters started as a collaboration, and have remained so ever since.  And you can blame the stereotypical comic book nerd for perpetuating these flame wars, but people like Kirby and Steve Ditko are the worst of all.  Not that there aren't real issues over rights and credits - but who invented Spiderman?  A whole bunch of people!

But what about Stan Lee himself?  His incessant self-promotion rubs a lot of people up the wrong way, but he at least acknowledged his co-creators.  And you can tell he does love these characters.  But he doesn't seem to have been much of a businessman, and may have set Marvel's movie career back years.  He spent a long time in Hollywood in the 60s trying to get an Ant-Man film off the ground.  Of all the superheroes - Ant-Man?

Superheroes took a slump again in the 70s, with the biggest success being Howard the Duck, who was something of a phenonon at the time, until George Lucas thankfully put a stop to it.  The 80s saw a bit of a resurgance, thanks in part to the birth of the Saga! - huge crossovers involving many different comics - it meant fans did buy different series to keep up with the whole story, but at a risk of alienating potential new readers.  It also meant continuity became a big headache because all the characters' actions and backstories became intertwined.  Writers had to consult a team of specialists
who kept detailed charts on every superhero.  The fantastical nature of the word makes it easier to explain away some inconstitencies, but at the price of confusion and complexity.  At one point, an editor threatened to quit unless all clones of Peter Parker except one were removed from the timeline.  I think they kept one or two back - just in case...

In the 90s greed got the better of Marvel.  Shiny covered "special editions" started off as a big success, but the market soon collapsed, and it wasn't helped by a lowest-common denominator approach by bosses, and the loss of big names like Todd McFarlane.  In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy.  They managed to bounce back soon after, but it was movies rather than comics which saved them - starting with X-Men in 2000.  The success came as a surprise to the X-Men comic book writers, who had a completely different set of characters and storylines going at the time, and failed to attract new readers on the back of the film.

This has lead to a growth in recent years of the Ultimate series - a retelling from scratch of many of the big names, with an eye to movie audiences, rather than comic book characters.  They even portrayed Nick Fury as a Samuel L Jackson clone, years before he actually got the part.  At the end of last year, Marvel was named the most profitable movie franchise of all time, grossing more than $5 billion dollars in total.  You can't underestimate the importance of better CGI in this - but is it inconceivable to have had a groundbreaking Marvel movie before then?  A Star Wars of superhero movies? Perhaps it would.  Anyway, movies are in charge now - the comics themselves are an afterthought.

Despite the stupidity and meanness of many of the people involved, this book is definitely worth a read - well researched, even handed and intelligently written.  I got it as a book on tape though, which may have been a mistake.  Just too many people to try and keep track of.   Maybe a comic version would be a good idea?

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto

Not that we get a choice of course, but how many of us would be willing to swap being a decent person for being a great artist?  I'd rate Hitchcock as one of the best moviemakers of all time (better than John Carpenter even?  Tough one....) but as a human being he really was one sick puppy.

This is a big book, with a hell of a lot detail about moviemaking.  Essential for fans of cinema I reckon.  But it's Hitchcock's twisted relationships with women which I found particularly fascinating.  He got married fairly young to Alma Reville -  who was shaping up to be a talented filmmaker in her own right.  They never divorced, were married for more than fifty years, and apparently never cheated on each other. But much of Hitchcock's life was spent obsessing about, and eventually tormenting, beautiful women.

 Madeleine Carrol in The 39 Steps I suppose set the mold for the stereotypical Hitchcock blonde, but it seems to have been Ingrid Bergman who really knocked him for six.  Though the director was clearly smitten, Bergman was a pretty tough cookie and their relationship was always strong.  Grace Kelly, similarly, could handle his attentions.  But when she ran off to become a princess, Hitchcock went a bit off the rails.

He signed up Vera Miles to a five year exclusive contract as Kelly's replacement, but she betrayed him by getting pregnant (an escape route taken by a suspicious number of his leading ladies.)  He didn't have a lot of luck with Eve Marie Saint or Kim Novak after that, and the author here argues that Psycho was sort of a nervous breakdown on film - a furious manifestation of his frustration with these beautiful, untrustworthy women.  Tellingly, Vera Miles is given a second string role and made over like a spinster in that movie.

Then Hitchock tries his most ambitious gambit yet - and falls harder than ever.  Alma notices a girl on an advert and Hitchock decides to make her his new star from scratch.  This was Tippi Hedren, whom he again signed up to an exclusive contract, before personally coaching her, torturing her with live seagulls for days on end on The Birds, then tormenting her psychologically in the unsettling flop Marnie.  After that her career was pretty much over, but Hitchcock also seems to have been damaged beyond repair too.  Frenzy's really the only one worth watching after that, featuring his most brutal violence against women.

As well as this side of him, the author also gives an account of Hitchock's cruel practical jokes - including manipulating a crewmember on an early British film to stay handcuffed to the set all night, before slipping him a bunch of laxatives.  He was also incredibly mean to his collaborators - not just with the credit, which he generally wanted all to himself, but with money.  He was earning millions, yet paid key scriptwriters next to nothing.

And yet, this really isn't a hatchet job on the man.  Hitchcock's love of film and command of the medium shine through.  He was incredibly private and rarely showed any emotion, but his damaged psyche seems to have been projected straight onto the screen.  What more can we ask from an artist?  His demons have become timeless.

Friday, 1 March 2013

A Fire in the Sun by George Alec Effinger

The follow up to When Gravity Fails which means more drugs, more plug-in personalities, more baffling noir plotlines and more struggling with the Islamic faith.  And if anything, this is even better than the first book.

Slight SPOILER for When Gravity Fails, but in this our hero Marid has not only got himself wired (and, of course, got addicted to the daddies and moddies) but he's also a reluctant gangster, a reluctant business owner and an even more reluctant policeman.  None of which make him very popular among his group of friends.

He's now effectively the right hand man of the gangland methuselah Friedlander Bey.  Their relationship is very interesting - Marid fears and hates Papa Bey, but there's a real love there too.  He stays at Papa's house and has a Christian slave to banter with. That's another interesting relationship, as the slave is really his minder.  This is a common theme in this book - the more power which Marid seems to aquire over people just ends up trapping him more, and leaving him more isolated.

Marid also has a less than tearful re-union with his mother.  He can't stand her because she's an ageing whore, but he knows as a good muslim he should honour her.  And he's guilty because she's just the kind of woman (or man) he spends most of his time with anyway.  Should you hold your mother to a higher standard than you hold yourself?  This kind of soul-searching is where this book excels - this is a real journey for Marid, and it's always convincing.

The plot.....yes, I do vaguely remember a plot.  There was certainly a good baddie - an even worse version of Bey, who makes his henchmen plug in his own personality so he can have sex with himself.  Creepy.  I didn't really follow it all to be honest, but I have to read Chandler books a few times to figure out the plot as well.  Doesn't mean I'm not having fun reading them.

There's one more full book in this series (The Exile Kiss - got it on my kindle already) then a few chapters left over when Effinger died.  It's so refreshing to have a series of sci-fi books where the main character is the most fascinating aspect.  The name Marid means sickness by the way - his mother named him that so disease would be fooled and leave him alone.  I'm not sure how, but that seems to sum him up nicely.