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Archive: March 2004

Language-Master of Space!

Second in a series of, oh, four posts, I suppose, about the excellent comic book From Beyond the Unknown #23. The first concerned the “Secret of the Man-Ape!” This post, as you have no doubt deduced from its title, concerns the “Language-Master of Space!” Story by Gardner Fox, art by Sid Greene. I know the mystery of the literatus gorilla has been the primary topic of interest w/r/t From Beyond the Unknown, but stick around for more sf comics craziness of yesteryear!

Gideon Karr had mastered a hundred different planet-languages—but he wouldn’t be satisfied till he had increased that number ten times as much! Then one day on the planet Klyara he was forced to do some “straight talking” with the strangest weapon in the galaxy—to save his own life!

“The name is Gideon Karr, folks—star wanderer, planetary adventurer, and master linguist! A man with an itch to roam the spaceways—ready to tell my story in any of a hundred languages, if you “savvy” them…

“Maybe you’ve never stopped to realize how many different ways intelligent beings communicate with one another! For instance, on Gran they use radiant light beams—on Proganus, they vibrate their four antennae…

“The Sporrans of Arcturus-4 talk with colored bubbles of vocal energy…

“On Dellagro, the four-armed natives use a sign language…

“The green beings of Slistilyssa communicate by making clicking sounds with their long fingernails…” [In the panel, a smooth green ladies man clicks away, as an editor’s note helpfully translates: “How about a date tonight, honey?”]

Gideon Karr, Peripatetic Space Linguist, finds his “fiddlefoot” itching again, which he takes to mean that it’s time for him to continue his endless wandering in quest of learning 1,000 languages (Gideon is nothing if not ambitious). As he heads for the spaceport, however, he’s caught in the crossfire as two Sfarrans and a Callistan battle it out with blast-guns! Gideon, a lifelong advocate of the underdog, leaps into the fray and soundly trounces the Sfarrans—too late to save the life of the Callistan! Nevertheless, the friendly Callistan offers Gideon a reward of information: the location of some fire gems! Fire gems, “a legend in the stars! Fantastically beautiful, they are absolutely priceless! The only fire gem ever known to exist had been destroyed in the catastrophe which destroyed Solonar…” But there’s a whole stash of them in the Lake of White Water on the planet Klyara. If Gideon can get his paws on a fire gem, he’ll never have to work again—he’ll have the rest of his life free to study study study those languages! Now he knows just how he can scratch his “fiddlefoot.”

Arriving on Klyara, Gideon finds it inhabited entirely by life-like statues. A normal man would certainly, upon such a discovery, say, “Why is this planet covered with cities inhabited by statues? That’s really weird.” But Gideon is a man of singular purpose! He cares about only two things in the universe:

  1. languages and
  2. fire gems.

Gideon dives to the bottom of the Lake of White Water and finds a fire gem inside a mollusk (just as pearls are found inside oysters on Earth, Gideon educationally points out). After cutting and polishing the gem on his spaceship (he’s also an amateur jeweler!), he strolls over the library to read about Klyara’s language. (Why does a city of inanimate statues have a library stocked with books? Who’s supposed to read them? Gideon has no time for such insignificant questions!) He sees another spaceship land, and it soons comes to light that Klyara is under invasion! The Klyarans are not inanimate statues, but living people slowed almost to the point of absolute stillness by a delayogas bomb released by the invading Skrann aliens (that’s “delay-o-gas,” by the way, it took me several seconds to figure out how to parse that word). At first Gideon, unarmed and unable to make use of the Klyaran’s sophisticated arsenal (which seems rather insecure, or maybe Gideon is also a master of infiltration), decides that discretion is the better part of valor. He changes his mind, though, after a bolt of energy zaps from the fire gem (which he made into a ring) and melts his spaceship.

“Hardly believing my eyes, I tested the ring again! In some mysterious manner the fire gem had transformed the noonday sunlight into a deadly disintigrating ray…

“For ages, man has made light from electricity! The fire gem—like a photo-electric cell—reverses the process, turning light into electricity! Actually, the fire gem turns light into a discharge of raw, destructive fury!”

Got it? It’s the opposite of a light bulb!

Gideon boldy threatens to melt the Skranns’ spaceship, but then the sun goes down and the ring stops working! He waits till next sunrise, melts the spaceship, and then the Skranns apparently stand around discussing the possible ramifications on their invasion plan of having their spaceship melted, and they take so long deciding what to do about this that the sun goes down again. (Gideon, courteous to the end, kindly doesn’t take the opportunity to just get on with it and melt the Skranns.) Luckily for Gideon, they decide to surrender. After the effect of the delayogas wears off, the Klyarans are happy to reward Gideon by teaching him their ear-wiggling language. Seriously, Klyarans have mouths and everything (maybe they don’t have vocal cords?), but they communicate by wiggling their huge donkey-like ears.

You’ll note that the “master linguist of space” concept exists mostly to give Gideon a motivation and to set up the “straight talking” joke on the opening splash page of the story. Too bad! Just imagine the possibilities of linguistics-centered pulp sf… “Gideon Karr and the Language Virus from Space!”

New X-Men love

Marc Singer has a good summary analysis of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men.

New X-Men moves in three distinct phases, roughly one for each year Morrison spent on the title. The first year is one of resuscitation, as Morrison rethinks old X-Men concepts and selectively introduces new ones, including a threat that will force drastic changes to Magneto, to the Sentinels, and ultimately to Xavier himself.

Marc’s reading organizes the entire epic story into three parts: X-Men renaissance (catalyzed, appropriately, by Charles Xavier’s evil twin Cassandra Nova whom ey tried to kill in the womb), the X-Men’s exploration of their new role as public advocates for mutant rights, and finally the collapse of Xavier’s dream—and of Magneto’s dream. “Planet X” ends with apocalypse, and the “Here Comes Tomorrow” epilogue apparently further explodes the narrative so there is no status quo established at all, not the pre-Morrison nor Morrison’s own nor an entirely new one. Wonderful! That’s just what I hoped would happen. Not a continuity reset button so much as a marker, a sunset and a sunrise. “This is where the X-Men end… and where they begin again. What next, X-Men?” The fact that Chris Claremont and Chuck Austen decide what they do next is, as Marc notes, a problem only if you keep reading the books after Morrison leaves. I personally think that a new beginning is a lovely way to end a story.

Marc does seem a little disappointed with “Planet X,” which is too bad. I noted some of the “lingering questions,” but by the time I was reading about how Logan chooses to end his life (and Jean’s life), I was practically physically incapable of caring why Logan never smelled Magneto hiding in the school.

Ooh, can’t wait for the “Here Comes Tomorrow” trade to be published! It sounds excellent.

“I said exactly what I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say it.”

Dave Sim was actually interviewed by The Onion (not a permalink), and this is the quote that sticks with me most:

“There was no “storm of misinterpretation” following Cerebus’ “marriage” to Astoria. I’m not sure the quotes belong on there. That was part of my point. If Cerebus is the Pope and he declares himself married to Astoria and has sex with her, is that rape? There were a number of levels to that one, but that was the joke as far as I was concerned.”

I’ve never read Cerebus, mostly because I didn’t really see the point in giving money to someone who doesn’t think I deserve to be able to make such weighty decisions. Then as the end drew near and other comics bloggers talked about all the interesting things going on in Cerebus I got more and more convinced that I should give it a chance. But I haven’t yet, and it’s partly what’s contained in that quote that holds me back. I realize I may sound like the sort of “hysterical” feminist Sim so despises on this one (and, let’s be honest, that’s basically my normal state) but I’m utterly put off by a writer who can’t think of a better way to deal with an abstract concept like “what level of power makes you able to make something true/real/existent just by saying it?” without throwing in a “joke” sequence in which his main character rapes the character based on the author’s by-then-ex-wife?

And I hope I can be emotional without proving Sim right about the nature of women, but this all hits me far too close to home and I really don’t understand how it gets to be such a laughing matter. So an established, nuanced character gets raped (or maybe not, since apparently in Simworld there’s no such thing as marital rape) to lend gravitas to some adolescent musings on language and meaning and that’s supposed to just make the point stronger or something. Perhaps it does, but not in the way Sim intended. I realize that the tragedy is that people who weren’t themselves adolescent fanboys were reading and were betrayed by writing like this, not to mention Astoria’s human counterpart. And I just don’t know whether I could read and enjoy this, even without the question of what my money supports. I know other people read and I trust their judgment, but I don’t know how to make this decision.

Not really switching gears, my interpretational fixation just before we began this version of the blog was how people can do wicked, hurtful things and be utterly convinced they’re doing something right. Dave Sim seems to be one of those people, sure of himself and utterly remorseless, although it’s unfair of me to say that when he’s perhaps repented in his way for the things he did before his vow of chastity and so on. What he’s done, though, is build a world in which he doesn’t even seem to have the “number of levels” he put in Cerebus. He knows what’s right and what’s real and what’s best, and never seems to question whether things he says are so. At least he realizes his own thoughts are out of step with many other people’s. They are with mine, and I think because of who I am this may be a fatal disconnect. I don’t know whether or not that’s a good thing.

Secret of the Man-Ape!

“Secret of the Man-Ape!” Published in From Beyond the Unknown. Story by Otto Binder, art by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella.

Who knows what past civilizations dominated ancient Earth—and vanished without a trace? Who knows what other intelligent creatures may have reigned over our world?

By a twist of evolutionary fate, an alien from outer space finds he has chosen the wrong disguise to spy on Earth!

[Scientist:] If my machine works, I’ll be able to transform this gorilla into a human!

[Gorilla (thinking):] It better work—or my plan to conquer the Earth will fail!

You see, 100,000 years ago, Earth was ruled by a civilization of intelligent gorillas. And, as we all know, if some aliens on a planet 100,000 light years from our solar system viewed Earth through a telescope, they would see the Earth of 100,000 years ago, ruled by gorillas. If said aliens then, operating on this 100,000-year-old intelligence, decided to send a spy to Earth in preparation for a full-scale invasion (as aliens are wont to do), they would naturally send an alien spy transformed by a ray into a gorilla. The tragedy of the situation, you will note, is that Earth is no longer ruled by a civilization of intelligent gorillas, but by humans. (It doesn’t matter, if you’re wondering, who will be ruling Earth in the distant future, because the aliens, despite having light-speed-only telescopes, do have faster-than-light space travel. One might wonder why they don’t simply send an invisible spy camera or something, if one were a hard-hearted curmudgeon with no appreciation for the lovely absurdity of 1950s comics featuring gorillas.) Luckily, our gorilla protagonist finds himself captured by a scientist with a ray which transforms gorillas into human form:

When the mind-reading gorilla is delivered to the scientist’s laboratory in America—

[Scientist:] I’ve been waiting for this specimen, to try out my evolving ray!

[Gorilla (thinking):] I hope it works! My whole mission depends on it!

As the rays bathe the alien gorilla…

[Scientist (thinking):] Gorilla to human in ten minutes! According to my calculations, only the body has changed, not the brain!

[Gorilla (thinking):] Now if I can escape this cage…

But the next moment, the ray is turned on the alien again…

[Scientist:] This experiment is too dangerous for me to continue on my own! I’ll change him back…

[Gorilla (thinking):] No—no!

[Scientist:] As soon as I dismantle the machine, I’ll turn my plans over to the science society for further study!

[Gorilla (thinking):] Trapped in gorilla form again! I must get those plans for myself, somehow!

Meanwhile, Professor Scott finds another “spy” lurking outside his window…

[Scientist (thinking):] That face in the window again! It’s Hal Todd, my former assistant! I never trusted him, and fired him! I wonder if he’s scheming to steal my plans for evil purposes?

Now we begin to understand that mysterious cover, as Prof. Scott decides to smuggle his secret notes past Hal by hiding them in his nephew’s library books: Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, and Treasure Island! As Prof. Scott takes his notes to the science society, he is so worried about this stalker Hal, he walks right in front of a truck! Hal kneels to examine the professor’s cane, hat, and books, scattered in the street (the corpose is nowhere to be seen, perhaps stuck under the truck), his thoughts are ironic: “Professor Scott—dead! I wonder if he planned to use his discovery for evil purposes, as I half suspected at times?”

(Philosophical question: To what evil purposes do you suppose somebody might put a ray which makes gorillas look like humans, but doesn’t make them smarter?)

A passer-by returns the prof’s books to the library (this is apparently minutes after the prof was run over by a truck, and there’s been no indication that anybody called an ambulance or anything…), where our alien gorilla, having escaped his cage, checks them out. (As she hands over the books, the librarian thinks, “At first I imagined that gorilla was talking to me—but it’s his thoughts I hear! How is such a fantastic thing possible?” In a display of flagrant negligence, she fails to ask the gorilla for his library card.)

The gorilla steals a car and speeds out of town—trailed by Hal, who made to the library only after the gorilla got the books, despite having been standing in front of the library a couple pages ago when the prof was hit by the truck. The gorilla, who does not have a driver’s license, drives right off a cliff. Hal muses that “The world will never know” just what the gorilla’s nefarious plans were. The end.

And so “Secret of the Man-Ape!” is a tragedy, a cautionary tale of the peril of acting on insufficient information. It is happy that the aliens are willing to jump to conclusions based on suspect intelligence, since we certainly don’t want Earth falling to the aliens. If only, though, Hal and the prof had not allowed themselves to be ruled by suspicion! They give in to paranoia, and the sad result is the prof’s violent death and Hal’s looking like an idiot for losing some library books to a gorilla.

Stay tuned for “Language-Master of Space!” and “World of Doomed Spacemen!”

Stories to Stagger the Imagination!

When Graeme McMillan introduced to the comics blogosphere the wondrous comic book cover pictured below, Rose and I leapt into action and purchased a copy of From Beyond the Unknown #23 from eBay. (We also got Eddie Campbell’s The Eyeball Kid #1, a bunch of the Doom Patrol runs of Grant Morrison and Rachel Pollack [mostly Rachel Pollack], and special extra surprise freebies Foxfire #1 and The Phoenix Resurrection Genesis #1 [both of which are Ultra Gold Limited Edition! awesome!]. Both of the extra special freebies are apparently X-Men comics, despite having been published by Malibu Comics. What is Malibu?)

From Beyond the Unknown #23

I’ve not had a chance to read “World of Doomed Spacemen!” or “Language-Master of Space!” yet, but “Secret of the Man-Ape” alone is worth whatever we spent. Expect a full review very very soon. Maybe even a full transcript, because everybody should read this story! I am disappointed to say that the ape’s reason for checking out those three particular books (he apparently actually checks them out in the story, rather than holding up the library with a gun) is disappointing. The rest of the story more than makes up for it, though!

What I Watch (and a little why)

David Fiore wanted to know what movies other comics bloggers love. I can’t comply with a list of 30 or more like other people, although if I did a longer list, I would have some overlap with those and especially with Eve Tushnet’s. Instead these are the pivotal references in what Dave and Rick Geerling are calling spiritual autobiography, and they seem to come in pairs for me. And since one goal of this is analysis of the links to comics preferences (ok, and simple voyeurism/curiosity and characterization, I assume) I should let it be known that I’ve just realized that most of my favorite superhero stories are fill-ins not parts of storyarcs.

It’s only a roughly ordered list, but I still need to start with A Moment of Innocence, Farsi title Noon va Goldoon, literally Bread and Flower, directed by the Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf. It’s about autobiography and representation and love and idealism and, well, the loss of innocence implied in the title. In reality and the movie, back in the 1970s young dissident Makhmalbaf attacked a policeman with a knife, trying to steal his gun. Makhmalbaf was jailed for the offense, and the young officer left the force. Years later, Makhmalbaf, now a respected director, reencountered the policeman, who’d shown up at a casting call for extras. They decided to film their story, and this is the result. Each picks a younger version of himself, perhaps a bit more handsome. Each independently (and this is where I have to take the story on its own logic; I don’t know whether Makhmalbaf actually oversaw all the shooting or if he didn’t know until afterwards what the police side of things was looking like) took and trained his younger self to understand what he was thinking and feeling, how to live his memories in the days leading up to the event. That’s all I’m going to say for now in hopes that someone among my readers will then go see it (or has seen it already) but this was heavily on my mind when I started talking about “creation of self through narrative,” and it sticks with me still. No movie has given me chills like the last scene here did, because how people make themselves is the most compelling story.

Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders. I could believe in angels who exist only to pull the tiny fragments of poetry out of life and record them. I know well how that life is not satisfying. And the music!

Moving way back to me as a 5-year-old, Return to Oz was a formative experience indeed. I’d read the books and so my parents took me to the movie, not knowing how much I’d be overwhelmed by the visuals. I grew up without television and remember this and a few other movies I saw as a child as engrossing and amazing movies, so big I couldn’t even really process them. Steven and I saw this last winter and it’s entertaining, but odd. I realize I’m also obsessed with the idea of audience, but I really don’t know how this movie got made. It’s too dark and disturbing for children (and I carried with me a slight distrust of optometrists’ machines, even though I knew that they weren’t quite what threatened Dorothy) and far too simplistic for adults. But it’s lovely, and perhaps where I started an obsession with set design.

I was perhaps nine or ten when I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock on television at my grandparents’. I was surprised to find when I saw it again last year that the scene I remember most vividly didn’t occur onscreen but was merely narrated. Typical! I haven’t seen any of Peter Weir’s films, but I probably should if they can manage the chilling, understated longing and melodrama that captured me then and now.

High school means Heavenly Creatures, and I’ve certainly gone on to watch more Peter Jackson! At the end and for half an hour after my first viewing my stomach was clenched with the thrill and horror of a love not worth killing for and the pain and power of self-delusion. My mother had taken me to see it since I wasn’t technically old enough to get in alone and she, perhaps predictably, was unimpressed and disgusted.

A few years later I developed a not-quite-inexplicable addiction to The Full Monty. It managed to humanize men for me, which seemed at the time like a fairly impressive feat.

And then there’s the last year or so, in which I’ve seen more films than probably any other time in my life, which isn’t saying much. Russian Ark was a standout for its audacity and precision and costumes and for a tiny unspoken subplot about quarreling lovers that I think I see. My favorite, though, was Dirty Pretty Things, almost a template for what I like in a movie. Sensitivity to culture, gorgeous dialogue, strong settings, candid and not exploitative looks at gender and violence as part of an actual story with actual characters. Actually, I’m not sure how it could be replicated, so it probably isn’t a good template, but is an impressive movie.

And then there are life-changing experiences. Casino Royale has opened me up to amazingly ridiculous humor and light-hearted happiness and Burt Bacharach and the Tijuana Brass! And after Annie Hall I cried for three days and then got the first burst of strength to really stop for good.

Superman announces his plans for dealing with little lost girls and guys with guns

This is the year were we get a more proactive Superman that you don’t want to mess with. If you’re a little lost girl, he’ll be there to save you, but if you’re a guy with a gun or an alien armada attacking Earth, then look out because he’s not going to go easy on you. This is not like Batman’s revenge scenario, but more of an empowering fantasy. We all want to have the power to make a difference. Superman does, so he should. This year, he will.

No word yet on how Superman plans to deal with girls with guns or little lost boys. Perhaps he will give them rides on Comet the super-pony. Sad little lost lads and poor little lasses turned to a life of crime just need a super-pony!

Oh, wait, DC removed Comet the super-pony from continuity. No wonder lonely Superman is so unhappy nowadays:

Mad Superman

What was so wrong about Superman’s best friends, Comet the super-pony, Krypto the Kryptonian’s best friend, and Beppo the lovable simian super-rascal? Fuck you, DC!

[Quote from an interview with Superman editor Eddie Berganza, thanks ever so much to Graeme McMillan. Image also stolen from Comic Book Resources.]

Continuity Criticism!

Rose and I bought Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why this weekend, and I’ve just read the introduction and Chapter 0. I think this is going to be a fun book, and looks like it will have a lot to say about the concept of “continuity,” which I’ve been getting very interested in lately.

Few superhero narratives enjoy uncomplicated relationships with prior parent-narratives, which are (all too) present in the narrative. (p. 2) […] The path that gets the superhero from the reduction of chaotic continuity in a single fictional universe through the burden of continuity and tradition in Planetary’s Snowflake is the focus of this book. (p. 24)

Sounds like fun to me! I’m especially taken with Klock’s description of Crisis on Infinite Earths (which is not discussed at length in How to Read Superhero Comics):

The metaphor of this biblically styled story is unavoidable: by looking into origins, existence is splintered into a variety of mutually exclusive interpretations that have no center. The current state of the DC universe—all of the continuity problems and confusions and paradoxes, Umberto Eco’s oneiric climate—is the retroactive result of looking too closely for a guiding and originating principle. (p. 20)

I’m going to have to get Crisis tomorrow so I can read this for myself!

Also, as Rose noted, we’ve been reading The Invisibles, and I’m planning to get The Invisbles: Entropy in the UK as well tomorrow, which I believe goes to the end of The Invisbles volume one, so hopefully I’ll soon have read enough to share some coherent thoughts.

Creative Freedom

Creative freedom. (See also Dave Intermittent’s thoughts on creative freedom.) Well, I’ve never in all my years of reading found that the creative freedom with which a piece of art is created is an accurate predictor of quality. Uh, that’s about it, I guess.

As for there being too many superhero comics on the market, and their prominence choking out everything else… See, I was in a comics shop in Bloomington this weekend, and I’d say maybe half the books in the store weren’t superhero comics. Maybe it was less than half, I didn’t do an exact count. (And yeah, there are tons of stores that stock 100% superhero comics, too bad for those fanboy loser stores.) Of course, I was also in a Borders and they had maybe half American superheroes and half manga, which is too bad. The thing is, as far as I can tell there’s lots of totally superhero-free comics out there. The thing is, moreover, if there were fewer superhero comics then there wouldn’t necessarily be fewer bad comics. The thing is, really, if you ignore Marvel and sort of squint at DC so you can’t see the superhero books they publish, I think the corporate comics publishing industry looks pretty diverse. If you look also at small-press publishers, even more diverse. That Borders I went to that stocked almost no American comics that weren’t superhero comics could easily build a strong inventory of American comics with no superheroes. Why don’t they? I don’t know, but my guess is that a lack of available published material is only one of several reasons, maybe even a smallish reason among larger reasons. Another obvious reason I can think of is that there has historically been a lack of available published material other than superhero comics, creating the perception that there’s a lack of available material. If you look at most of the comics resources on the Web, it sort of looks like superheroes dominate the industry—but that is maybe getting a little better, especially thanks to the growing community of comics bloggers. If you look at resources outside the comics community, it seems that, say, there are ever fewer newspapers and magazines at which clever headline writers feel it necessary to preface each comics-related article with “Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t for kids anymore!” So, from my perspective anyway, the notion that superheroes dominate comics is largely a matter of perception, and I see many signs that that perception, in popular culture, has been been changing and continues to change.

Consumer Taste Test: Animal Man

Finally, a relaxing weekend! Well, a little at least. Steven and I did see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which we both enjoyed, though our interpretations of the ending differ greatly. I began reading The Invisibles and just finished Spooked. And I relaxed and got a full night’s sleep for more than one night, which is the best news of all.

Steven had said earlier that as a 12-year old he would have preferred Animal Man to a straight-up power fantasy, but since we lack the time travel technology to test this assertion, we lent the trades to my 12-year-old brother. He really enjoyed them and says he sympathized with Animal Man. The stories featuring Bwana Beast were favorites. The ending of the series, however, was too “cliched” for his tastes. I couldn’t tease out exactly what he meant by that, but it may be related to the fact that he’s been writing stories for several years now in which he, as author, interacts with his characters, so maybe it’s child’s play. Or maybe it seemed like just another “and it was all a dream!” baby-meta ending. At any rate, apparently Animal Man is more serious and compelling than the Essential X-Men volumes he’s read, but not nearly as funny as Young Justice. I’m not sure what this proves except that every time I lend or give him comics I end up with him demanding more and checking in with me whenever he sees me just in case I’ve unearthed another appropriate text. And that he’s going to be really thrilled when he finds out there’s a Bill & Ted comic! Wow!