Dark rebooting: HERO: Powers and abilities

DC’s 2003-5 series H-E-R-O is an interesting example of doing a darker, grittier, grimmer reboot that actually works.

The series was based on Dial H for HERO, a Silver Age series about “Robby Reed — the Boy Who Can Change Into a Thousand Superheroes!” Created by Dave Wood and Jim Mooney, this has teenage science whiz Robbie Reed discover an alien dial. Translating the instructions, he learns that by dialing the equivalent of the letters H-E-R-O, he transforms into a superhero. To return to normal, he transforms back (other letters allow someone to dial VILLAIN).

I loved this series as a kid. In the first place, it was the only series besides Spider-Man that had a non-sidekick fteen protagonist. And where Spider-Man had powers, Robby was ordinary. If I’d found the dial, hey, I could be just as super! Plus the appeal of a series that offered more superheroes even than the Justice League of Avengers books was irresistible.

Rereading recently, I can see the flaws in it. The stories and villains are bland, and got sloppy near the end of the run (Wood forgets his own ground rules, like Robby having to dial back to normal before becoming another hero). Robby lives with his grandfather, but we never learn why, or where his parents went. Being a science whiz is his only personality trait.

When Joe Orlando took over as House of Mystery editor at the end of the Silver Age, he saw that the superhero strips sold poorly compared to the supernatural anthology approach of times past. He switched House of Mystery and House of Secrets to anthology books hosted by Cain and Abel, a format which made them steady sellers on into the 1980s. I was baffled and disappointed to discover Robby Reed and backup the Martian Manhunter had suddenly disappeared, and I never became a fan of the anthology approach (with rare exceptions such as the first Swamp Thing story, they were mostly mediocre).

Robby popped up occasionally after that, including a 1980s Dial H series with different protagonists (it was a lot less fun). Most of these stories followed the premise of the original faithfully but H-E-R-O (by Will  Pfeifer and Jose Angel Cano Lopez) took it in a different direction.

While Robby eventually shows up, the hook is that the H-Dial passes from hand to hand in the course of the series. A guy who feels like a nothing becomes a superhero — now he’s a somebody, right? A stressed-out businessman uses the dial to give himself some fun. A little girl makes herself cool at school by offering to share the H-Dial. A group of slackers film themselves using their powers, then stream it to YouTube. Trouble is, the dial eventually falls into the hands of a psycho who hits the jackpot — Superman-class powers. Robby saw this future back in one of his super-identities and now that it’s arrived, he’s taking steps to prevent it …

This was definitely on the grim-and-gritty side of comics. Suicide, death, heroes dealing out gratuitous violence, extremely flawed protagonists and then more death. I think the reason it worked for me is because it’s a perfectly logical outgrowth of the original series — what if someone less heroic found the H-Dial? It’s not violating the original canon at all. That’s a vast improvement over the many, many reboots that go with Everything You Know Is Wrong! DC’s 1980sreboot of Silver Age space adventurer Adam Strange, for instance, assumes that Rann (the planet he adventures on) despises him and his presence there is just to provide breeding stock (Rannian men are sterile). It was grim and gritty at its worst, undercutting everything fun in the original series (when I read the classic Adam, I just ignore the reboot exists).

Pfeifer and Lopez, by contrast, got it right.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jim Mooney and John van Fleet, all rights remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage: The Speaking Stone of Pirate Island

It’s May and June of 1942, Doc Savage is having adventures in the Pacific but there’s not the slightest hint that the Pacific Theater of Operations is a thing.

PIRATE ISLE opens on a tramp steamer in the Pacific. Captain Hardgrove is the non-too-respectable captain, apparently saddled with a parrot that squawks out endearments to Mrs. Hardgrove’s lovers. Then he learns a man they recently rescued from the sea has apparently gone insane, run up the mast and pelting the crew with snowballs … despite the terrible tropic heat.

The man is actually Johnny Littlejohn, so before long Doc, Renny and Long Tom are flying to the ship (this is the rare book with no Monk or Ham, for reasons explained in the second yarn). Unfortunately so is Lord London, a ruthless pirate/mercenary whose presence on the scene fills the crew with terror. There’s a sequence where Lord London arbitrarily selects and shoots one of the passengers, just as a warning. It’s surprisingly shocking and effective. His men seize the ship, forcing Doc and his men to fight back without risking the passengers.

It turns out Lord London is after control of what he believes is a system for filtering gold from sea water (not the first time Johnny’s been entangled with one). He doesn’t realize it’s actually a system for making food out of plankton, an English project that could sustain Great Britain with North Sea plankton even if German u-boats shut down all shipping. That’s the only reference we get to the war. Johnny, who’s been faking insanity so nobody can interrogate him, was working on the system because … well, that doesn’t make much sense. “Greatest archeologist and geologist” is a skill set that has nothing to do with making food from plankton.

And the ending twist didn’t work for me. It turns out Hardgrove is the real Lord London. Before executing someone he starts talking about how sexy and handsome they are and this is what the parrot is er, parroting. While Lord London’s clearly ruthless, nothing indicated he was this loonie before. Still, the novel is an enjoyable, fast-moving story. It also leads directly into THE SPEAKING STONE.

At the opening of that one, Doc and Co. are still in the Pacific, dealing with the press ,when a man in a red vest shows up and gives Renny a small stone. It talks to him in Monk’s voice. Then the man keels over dead. So where are Monk and Ham? How did the stone speak? And why are the bad guys so hot to get hold of the stone?

It turns out this is a lost race story. Monk and Ham have wound up trapped in an Andean lost city (they don’t appear until two-thirds of the way in). After a lot of move and countermove with the bad guys — they do not want Doc reaching the city or figuring out what’s going on — we learn the stones are the city’s form of long-distance communication. The crystals pick up electromagnetic waves which allow them to transmit voice communication much further than radio (Monk suddenly displays enough physics knowledge to explain this), but after a while they degrade and repeat the last thing they heard on an endless loop. The lost city hopes to market the tech so they can grab some 20th century goodies, but their contacts in the outside world want to exploit it themselves. As it turns out, though, the stones don’t work except at very high altitudes so it’s all for naught.

The story is competent, not stellar. I did enjoy Dent riffing on the usual lost city cliches: instead of sitting in a volcanic crater or atop hot springs that keep it snug and warm, the snowbound Andean city is very, very cold. It’s a detail that gave me a chuckle.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama (from Men Who Smiled No More‘s cover) and Bob Larkin. All rights remain with current holder.

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Trump’s idea of “the best and brightest”

Back in 2016, a former FB friend of mine (rape-apologist trolling is a fast way to get yourself unfriended) argued we didn’t need to worry about Trump being a vainglorious dumbass. He was a smart, Big Apple businessman: he knew how to hire the best people, they’d make up for Trump’s shortcomings.

Like so many rationale for why Trump was the right choice, it’s bullshit. Let’s look at some examples:

First of course, as you probably all know, we have Staff Secretary Rob Porter. His alleged history of spousal abuse was enough to keep him from getting a security clearance. (apparently lots of Trumpites working with classified material do not have clearance). But Trump hired him anyway — after all, Porter denied the charges! How could they have known? Even John Kelly, The Grownup In The Room supported Porter — and as LGM points out at the second link, what does it say about Trump hiring the best people that everyone accepts the White House needs a grown-up in the room? Of course, Trump himself says Porter is awesome and besides, Porter said he was innocent! I’m sure the latest White House abuser says the same thing. Though as LGM points out, Trump doesn’t care about innocence when it’s Clinton or black men rather than white male abusers.

Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, tries to pretend he and  President Shit-Gibbon really care about spouse abuse (newsflash: a lot of religious conservatives don’t). He also indignantly denied his support for “conversion therapy” when he was called out by a gay Olympic athlete. More here.

Trump lickspittle Kellyanne Conway is head of the White House opioids response team. Her response? Ignore experts and rely on political appointees. Of course Conway’s a political hack herself whose highest career accomplishment is toadying to the white supremacist in the Oval Office, so it’s not surprising — but it’s still horrifying. We’re seeing hundreds of deaths from this thing, and Trump’s crew of the Best People doesn’t give a damn.

And even Conway looks good compared to FEMA’s Puerto Rico contractor, Tiffany Brown.

Kentucky Republican and Trump backer Timothy Nolan has been charged with forcing women to sleep with him, using everything from threats to money to calls to their probation officer. He’s pleaded guilty.

As for Trump’s decisive ability to bellow You’re Fired at his people just like he did on The Apprenticewell, no. Though apparently the blame for the Porter fiasco is somehow settling on Porter’s current girlfriend. And President Shit-Gibbon is quite happy to punish legal immigrants who use federal services by making it harder for them to get a green card.

It would almost be funny if this incompetent and morally bankrupt hacks weren’t running the country and getting loyal support from Republicans in Congress. They own this as much as Trump does. So let’s look at the rest of the right wing:

They hate that conservative kids might be exposed to liberal ideas in college.

Right-wing liar David Barton claims Obama designated him an enemy of the state. And a right-wing Christian pastor claims the Trumps had to exorcise Obama’s literally demonic influence.

A Fox News executive objects to the Olympic team being too dark and too gay.

Repub presidential wannabe Marco Rubio thinks we should fund paid family leave by cutting Social Security benefits.

An armed Trump supporter asked a Navajo legislator if he was a legal immigrant.

An Illinois neo-Nazi joins the ranks of neo-Nazis who’ve run for office as Republicans (David Duke did it years ago)

Remember when Republicans claimed cutting the deficit was the most vital mission on Earth? They lied.

And the Trump Consumer Finance Protection Bureau won’t do crap about firms that don’t guard our personal information.

A Trump supporter and Pizzagate believer is shocked anyone would say she pushes fake news.

And I’m inclined to agree with Lance Manion that if Trump’s biggest accomplishment is keeping America whiter, he’d be proud of that — as if FDR wanted to be remembered for the Japanese-American internment camps.

Rights to Edward Munch’s The Scream remain with current holder.

 

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Low budget movies, parrots, high school theater and Superman!: books

Books of film essays can be a tough sell: I have to have an interest in the movies, like what the critic has to say, and like the way he says it. With Charles Taylor’s OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70’s I got the first of the three, but no more than that. Taylor argues that low-budget drive-in fair such as Coffy, Citizens’ Band (one I remember bored me and Mum when we saw it), Two Lane Blacktop (that one I love) and Prime Cut, while not lost classics, are worth study. As Taylor sees it they embody 1970s films’ acceptance that bad things can happen to good people, but never sink into cynicism, and thereby represent the freshness of a great film-making era which came to an end when Star Wars turned the market over to big-budget special effects and crass commercialism. Which is the kind of endless moaning that made the book more tedious than interesting, so despite some interesting recommendations, I found the book pretty “meh.”

I, PARROT by Deb Unferth Olin and Elizabeth Haidle tells how a struggling single mother, determined to regain custody of her kid, tries earning extra income sitting for a room full of rare parrots. Problems, of course, develop … The book is reasonably enjoyable at the start, and I like the art, but it seems to meander into nothing by the end.

THE BACKSTAGERS: Rebels Without Applause by James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh has a nervous new student drawn into the crazy world of a high-school drama club tech crew. Just how big is the backstage area? What are those monsters crawling around there? Is it true a previous generation’s tech crew wandered into the back and just … vanished? This is cute, but much as I love theater material it’s pitched a little young to really hook me (but as it’s a juvenile series, that’s not the creators’ faults).

SUPERMAN THE GOLDEN AGE Vol 1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster collects the first couple of years of the Golden Age man of steel, “champion of the oppressed!” And the creators demonstrate that as Superman (as many others have pointed out) has a big, big social conscience that leads to waging war on corrupt mine owners who skimp on safety equipment, crooked contractors using cheap steel, reckless drivers and corrupt orphanage directors (admittedly Cruel Orphanage is a brand of villainy that goes back to the Victorians). In between Clark flirts with Lois, who comes off really unpleasant here, though impressively determined in her pursuit of a story. Reading this it’s obvious to see the growth of Kal-El’s powers as Siegel and Shuster kept topping one superfeat with another; light on the villains, though, the only one of note being the Ultra-Humanite (Supes’ other bald evil genius scientist foe). A fun read.

Cover by Joe Shuster, all rights remain with current holder. #SFWApro

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New Screen Rant out

About terrible fantasy shows you forgot ever aired.  G vs. E below is probably the most obscure — even my editor didn’t know it existed.

I will admit to watching Secrets of Isis as a teen purely because I crushed on Joanna Cameron (I got crushes like I breathed). But I found the show as boring as Shazam!

And then there’s Heath Ledger’s Roar, which other than bringing the Spear of Destiny to TV has nothing to recommend it.

All rights to all images remain with current holders. #SFWApro

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Two Maxwell Smarts, Two Doctor Mabuses: movies

GET SMART (2008) suffers from trying to be two things at once. On the one hand this reboot of the sixties spy spoof is a stock zero-to-hero story with Steve Carrell as a brilliant CONTROL analyst who gets his first shot at fieldwork alongside veteran agent Anne Hathaway (I wonder if the emphasis on Hathaway having undergone age-concealing plastic surgery is meant to duck the age disparity?); on the other, it wants to be a spy spoof so Carrell keeps pulling the same bonehead shticks as Don Adams (“Would you believe Chuck Norris with a BB gun?”) and the two never reconcile (it makes me appreciate how Adams could make Max’s occasional bursts of competence believable). And the climax is pure action film, and I don’t mean that in a good way. The cast includes Alan Arkin as Chief of CONTROL, Bill Murray as Agent 13, Mako Osai of Heroes as a tech nerd, Terence Stamp playing Siegfried perfectly serious, Patrick Warburton as Hymie the robot, James Caan as a nitwit President Bush II knockoff and Dwayne Johsnon as Agent 23 (who gets a twist that I spotted early). “Hey guard why don’t you come in here so I can make you my pretty little girlfriend?”

THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933) is the sequel to Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in which Mabuse, despite being insane and committed to an asylum, wreaks so much havoc even his agents are unsettled (without giving away too much, it’s one of those films where the terrorism looks horrifyingly plausible and effective). This time he has a more formidable adversary in Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann (plus a henchman who wants out) but it’s still Mabuse’s show. This has a number of excellent special features, most notably commentary by Mabuse expert David Kalat (which goes into detail on Lang’s dubious claim the film is an anti-Nazi allegory) and a documentary The Three Faces of Mabuse. This compares the original masterpiece to the shorted French version (filmed by Lang with French actors for the French market) and a later American cut, The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse. A great DVD from Criterion. “No-one has any idea what kind of phenomenal, superhuman mind came to an end with Dr. Mabuse’s death.”

THE LAST WILL OF DR. MABUSE (1933) was the American title for the French version (as Kalat notes, “will” has a double meaning in a Mabuse film) which was included on the Criterion DVD. Not as good as the German — Lohmann is much less impressive and forceful here — and with one change Kalat didn’t mention, Mabuse being described at the start as a super-hypnotist with a history of mesmerizing people into crime. Worth the added time it took to see it. “The testament of Mabuse? Is there such a thing?”

The TV movie GET SMART AGAIN (1989) was the good reunion film (I haven’t seen an earlier theatrical release, The Nude Bomb but I’ve never heard anything good about it) using some of the original creative team and all the original cast except Ed Platt as the Chief (Platt had passed away fifteen years earlier). KAOS acquires a weather control machine so US intelligence puts Max back in the field, reuniting with not only his old friends but archfoe Siegfried (played by the original actor, Bernie Koppell). Captures the show’s spirit perfectly; John de Lancie plays a KAOS mole and Harold Gould is a villain plotting to improve American literacy (“KAOS will publish the world’s great books, and if people don’t read them all — they die!”). “In 1969, KAOS traded him to THRUSH for two rookie killers and a minor-league mugger.”

Rights to images remain with current holders. #SFWApro

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Crazy dog parent week

So Tuesday I discovered we’d lost Plush Dog’s tags. They were hooked to his collar, the metal loop was loose and he was wandering through brambles. Or it could have been one of his roll-in-the-dirt moments. No way to tell now. But as a result we’ve been doing most of their walkies in the back yard. Yes, he’s microchipped, but we still don’t want him running off without an easily identifiable phone number on his harness (I’ve ordered new holders and tags, but they ain’t here yet).

Possibly that’s why the pups have been so wired this week. I don’t recall them being quite so frantic and excited in the mornings. Thursday (doggy day care day this week) they were so needy and lively I wound up playing with them for an hour so TYG could get some stuff done. Not the best use of my day off, but such is dog-owner life.

Oh, and Plush chewed through one of their balls Wednesday, and had licked some of the stuffing out. Fortunately I caught him before he could swallow.

Then this morning Trixie came downstairs with me for the first time in a while. This slightly disrupted my schedule as I always wind up snuggling on the couch with her. Still, she’s worth it.

So, all that said, how did the work go? Not too bad.

I think I completed about fourteen articles for Leaf, which will help pay for — well I’m not sure yet, but it’ll certainly help pay for something.

I continued working on the rewrites of Questionable Minds and Impossible Takes a Little Longer. I also read a couple of heavy-exposition scenes from Southern Discomfort to the writing group and got (as usual) great feedback.

I got next to nothing done on No One Can Slay Her. The last half of the story needs heavier restructuring than I’d thought and while I’ve diagnosed the problems, I don’t have the solution yet. I’ll blame that partly on the dogs — it’s really hard to do thinky/planny stuff when they’re piled on my lap. And Thursday was devoted to Screen Rant work (not out yet) and the Leaf stuff. Regrettably I wasn’t able to make my 1,000 words of fiction a day on Thursday. I was hoping I’d keep it going the whole year, but I could be happy with “every day of 2018 but one.”

And I worked out my transportation and hotel for Mysticon later this month — I’m a guest. Actually credit goes to Carla at Mysticon for finding a room at the con hotel when I wasn’t able to do it.

Plus I squeezed in a dentist visit. Teeth are in good shape, yay.

And now I crash. Slept poorly last night and I’m done in. But the weekend is here.

 

#SFWApro Photos are mine, please credit me and source blog if you use ’em.

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