Thomas J. McLean

Writer, Editor, Author

Japanese ‘Watchmen’ trailer, more lawsuit news

First, the very cool Japanese trailer:

Second, it looks like all will be decided by the judge in the “Watchmen” legal dispute between Fox and WB. Again, as a non-lawyer, I’ll defer to other sites to tell you what it all means.

Off the shelf: Path

“Path” ($12.95, Com.X) is essentially a chase story of the Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner variety. Story opens with a bang as a talking rabbit on the run from some crocidogs meets an elephant — and the two team up on the run to an unexpected point of destiny for them both. This comes from Com.X in England, and is written and “artworked” by Gregory S. Baldwin in a nice, cartoony style that evokes Sam Kieth’s work on the excellent old “Maxx” series.

Most of the story involves various chases and close escapes that are done well and come into focus with an unexpectedly touching point right at the end. It takes a while to get there, but it’s quite worth the relatively short trip.

The artwork is essential to the telling of this tale, and it’s all done in what looks like pencil drawings with gray tones added via the computer. The tones give the book a nice overall look, but often doesn’t have enough variation in shades, leaving too many panels and pages looking like a gray wash. I wish this book had been done in color, as it looks like the interiors are published in a “rich black” — or sepia, I guess — in which faint bits of color seem to be trying to edge their way in to the images.

Third Planet RIP

I’m a bit late to this, but my former comic shop, Third Planet in Torrance, has closed down. This article (which is on the Contra Costa Times site, but was originally done for the Daily Breeze), has all the details. Apparently, even the fixtures are for sale if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

I shopped at Third Planet when I first came to California in 1996. I was living in Redondo Beach and working at the Breeze and Third Planet was not only the closest comic shop, but the best at the time in that part of Los Angeles. I last visited the store around 2000, after it had moved from its first location near the Del Amo mall to PCH and as I was moving north and east into the belly of the beast that is Los Angeles. It will be missed …

Watching the ‘Watchmen’ legal battle is confusing

I’ve taken a look at the documents filed in the “Watchmen” film rights legal dispute and the judge’s recent summary judgment in favor of Fox and find myself fascinated by it all. (Filmesq.com is a great resource for all this.) I have no great insights on this, but I still think the film will come out March 6 as planned. I imagine delaying the film would damage the property and reduce the anticipated profits each side is trying to lay claim to. And as new info comes out, it gets harder to blame one studio or the other (I think doing so is counterproductive), so let’s just hope the judge or the parties can work out some kind of quick resolution to this.

The most astounding thing is that the studios and all their attorneys somehow missed something as important as the rights the judge has ruled Fox still retains in the project. It seems too much was taken at face value and not double checked — a huge embarrassment for both sides. I can’t wait to see the more detailed ruling. And I drove past the Roybal Building in downtown Los Angeles where the hearing will be held and found myself tempted to try to check out that upcoming hearing …

Comic du jour: The Flash #309 (May 1982)

First in what I intend to be a regular series looking at various individual comics of yesterday and today.

This is a pretty typical comic from a period not remembered as especially good for B- and C-list titles. Still, there’s almost always an element of charm to be found in such comics — and this is no exception.

Written by DC workhorse Cary Bates, the story involves an alien who comes back in time from a future in which the superheroes have become legends. Pleased to find the heroes really did exist, he kidnaps Flash and attempts to extract his speed energy by force. Flash escapes and, during a mind-link, learns the alien has the best of intentions — he needs the power to save his world from an alien threat. So Flash takes him back in time a bit further to the day he got his powers so the chemical soup Barry Allen was doused with could be analyzed and duplicated on the alien. The alien gets the Flash’s powers and goes back to his time to fight the alien. Flash tags along to make sure everything goes OK, but the monster is too tough, forcing the alien Flash to sacrifice his life to stop it. In the process, he resparks interest in the ancient superheroes and Flash goes back to his own time.

Carmine Infantino does the pencils on this issue and give it that special flair only he can deliver. As a kid, I didn’t like Infantino’s art on the “Star Wars” series because it didn’t capture the likenesses of the actors very well. But I came around on that, thanks to Infantino’s graceful and unique artistic talents. A lot of Infantinoisms are on display in this issue, too, from the design of the alien space ship, to his inimitable faces peeking out from the hyper-sketchy speed lines, the soft features of the alien’s face, and of course the Infantino hands! There are some drawbacks too: The unfortunately phallic imagery of the cover (duck, Barry!); a story told almost completely in thought balloons and the occasionally excessive looseness of the art.

Then there’s the backup feature, an 8-page Dr. Fate story written by Martin Pasko and drawn by Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt. This feels like the last of several parts, and I was pretty much lost as to what was going on. But Giffen showed his chops on the art, which was polished, compelling and fresh in the way that a lot of stuff from this era seemed at the time. I also love the use of color holds — line art printed using only the red, blue or yellow plate — to create a unique look that’s both archaic and still pretty cool even by today’s standards.

As always, there’s plenty of interesting ephemera in an old comic: The inside front cover ad for the first “Swamp Thing” movie; house ads for the debut of new series Saga of the Swamp Thing and Firestorm; and a letters page with a rare DC statement of ownership that puts The Flash’s 1981 average paid circulation at 92,151 copies — good enough for a top ten ranging in the direct market these days.

Finding a home in my brain for “The Spirit”

“The Spirit,” which adapts Will Eisner’s beloved strip and features the solo directorial debut of Frank Miller, is by pretty much any common standard a complete flop. After two weekends in release — one of them an extended holiday weekend — the film has grossed about $18 million domestic and $3 million international. The reviews have been savage.

But what’s been sinking in with me since I saw it sometime last week was how similar watching this movie is to reading a Frank Miller comic book. Yes, it’s jarring and over-the-top and falls short in telling a story the way moviegoers expect, but it’s also fascinating to watch Miller put his style up on the screen so completely untouched. Doing so also puts Miller’s flaws on display. The same was true in “Sin City,” where the telling of three stories in one film emphasized their similarities in a way reading the comics one at a time did not, though the overall result was a more conventional film.

But “The Spirit” fits right into Miller’s recent work. Since “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” Miller’s work has polarized fans as he stripped away the elements that grounded his work in the real-world milieu most fans prefer in favor of an unapologetically primal pulp style. Miller has largely abandoned superheroes as a vehicle for expression, going for the gut reactions evoked by pure sex and violence. In some cases, such as All-Star Batman, this goes so far against the audience’s expectation for comics (and the movies based on them) to plumb the hero’s soul and to establish their actions as occurring in the real world. “The Spirit” is much the same — Miller’s happy to have his hero beat up bad guys and make femmes fatales swoon because that’s his job. The villains, similarly, have little to no motivation beyond their fueling their own basic urges for power, money and sex. (Though it is interesting that Miller used the same formula Marvel does for its movies by connecting the origins of the hero and the villain.) The result is a story that lacks the depth commonly expected of comic books and movies in favor of the gut-level reactions to Miller’s intentionally provocative depictions of sex and violence. Miller’s love of breaking taboos is, in its way, admirable, even as I sometimes wish he’d get past pushing those buttons for their own sake.

The visuals are the one part of the movie that even the reviewers will admit are impressive to look at. Some of the things that are the most jarring in a movie — such as the scene with the Octopus and Silken Floss wearing kimonos — would work just fine in a Miller comic book. The background that changes from glowing red to a rising sun image, and the cartoonish figure of Samuel L. Jackson chopping a henchman in half with his samurai sword are so Miller-esque you can imagine the panels and the layout of the page with ease.

The way Miller sticks to a comic-book style of storytelling — especially at the start of the film, with its dense first fight between villain and hero and minimal exposition — reminds me of the dense, quick-action start to many a comic book. While readers can follow a story at their own pace and re-read panels or pages as needed to catch up, film and its audiences are much less forgiving. Given the way Miller slaps the audience around in the opening 20 minutes or so, it’s no surprise that viewers and critics gave up on finding a way into this bizarre, hyper-kinetic world.

By now you’ve probably guessed that I’m working up to saying I admire the film in a strange way — and I do. This is a film that is so comic-booky through and through, that it’s a taste that’s as refined and difficult to acquire as the most continuity-intensive superhero comic book series. This is a film made from and for the purer fringes of the comic-book culture and esthetic — and it is about as far from the standards of mainstream moviemaking and its audiences as you’re likely to get. I do lament that Miller’s vision of The Spirit completely overwhelmed the charm and wit of Will Eisner, but it’s been obvious from the first that that would have to wait for another time.

So is the movie bad? From almost every conventional standpoint, the answer is yes. But the parts of my head that really enjoys the occasional Heavy Metal story because it has nudity and violence, or Howard Chaykin’s “Black Kiss,” or the extreme violence of Simon Bisley’s artwork, and secretly cheers even the most childish of Miller’s anti-censorship rants, finds a lot to like in “The Spirit” — and is glad it got made.

Three “Spirit” prizes come to visit … [giveaway]

Just in time for Christmas and the release of the film, I have three copies of “The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion,” by Mark Cotta Vaz to give away, courtesy of the publisher, Titan Books, and the most excellent Tom Green. The book is definitely worth a look through for fans of Miller, Eisner and the movie — even if the movie itself turns out to not be to everyone’s taste. But to get a shot at winning, you’ll have to wade through me prattling on about some stuff and then answer a couple questions.

The film seems to be losing the battle of the critics so far, which is both unsurprising and still disappointing. I haven’t seen it yet myself, so I’m hoping there’s something about it — the tone, or simply embracing its own goofiness, if need be, that makes the experience fun.

I feel more invested in this movie than usual, as I’ve been writing about it for what seems like forever. I chatted up producer Michael Uslan at a party Oddlot Entertainment threw to announce the pic at Comic-Con in 2006, and managed to ask Miller about adapting Eisner’s short stories into a feature film (he said he was working on it). I did a set visit in November 2007 for Newsarama that produced three stories on the film; I did a short interview with producer Deborah Del Prete last summer about shooting in Albuquerque for a Variety special on New Mexico; and, coming up shortly, a piece on the film’s visual effects for Animation Magazine. Through that time, I’ve been impressed by the way the film is being made. The project was put together independently by Oddlot, who shopped it around, saying “this is what we’re gonna do, take it or leave it” and got Lionsgate to bite. This was the first feature film to shoot at the booming Albuquerque Studios, a brand new state of the art facility. The set visit was in a lot of ways less impressive, given that all there was to see was a huge greenscreen-draped studio and a few bits of scenery. It was cool to see an old-fashioned delivery truck with the logo “Ditko’s Deliveries” stenciled on the side, and to chat briefly with Gabriel Macht in costume. Unfortunately, none of the films’ femmes fatale were on set that day.

Beyond that, I’ve met Miller a number of times. (Some day, I’ll have to get my pal Jeff to talk here about the time he asked Miller to make corrections on a piece of original art he owned.) I was most pleased to meet him at a Dark Horse Comic-Con party in 2002, when I handed him a copy of the first Variety comics special I had edited and got a quick pic, taken by DH editor Diana Schutz with my camera. I later learned Miller always does the evil-eye thing in pictures. That night, he excused himself to go say hi to “a good friend,” who turned out to be Will Eisner.

Eisner was one of the greats I never had a chance to really meet. My favorite Eisner story was in “Invisible People,” the episode in which an obit run by mistake destroys a meek man’s life while the newspaper editor refused to admit the mistake and eventually won an award for her error-free track record. I was asked to be a judge for the Eisner Awards in September 2004 (the same day I had gone to press event for the DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy and got to meet Mark Hamill and irvin Kershner — it was a good day). I had been looking forward to the opportunity to meet Eisner and perhaps talk with him a bit more. But it was not to be, as will died at the New Year, several months even before the judging. I don’t recall any of the judges discussing Eisner much in the room, but when the ceremony came around and Will wasn’t there, it was definitely a very sad moment.

Eisner and Miller’s relationship is also interesting, and I am quite looking forward to finding the time to reread “Eisner/Miller” after seeing the movie to see if the impression that these men were in tune with each other’s sensibilities was real or just an impression made larger than it really was by the very nice idea that these two creators from different generations could have the kind of collegial relationship they seemed to enjoy.

So, on to the giveaway: The first three people to answer the following three questions correctly in the comments section of this post will win a copy of the book. Be sure to use an email address I can use to contact you with when you make your post. I have to limit the contest to domestic entries, i.e., I will not ship overseas. I will contact the winners via email to get shipping info, etc. Got it? Go:

1. What year were the Eisner Awards first given out?

2. Who conducted the interviews in the 2005 book “Eisner/Miller”? (Bonus points if you can tell me what worthy comics org he works for.)

3. Which of his famous characters did Miller freely admit to copying almost directly from Eisner’s Sand Saref?

Good luck!

Early reviews blast ‘Spirit’

The premiere for “The Spirit” was last night at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood and the early word is not good.

Justin Chang at Variety writes:

A slain cop is resurrected as a masked crime-fighter in “The Spirit,” but Frank Miller’s solo writing-directing debut plunges into a watery grave early on and spends roughly the next 100 minutes gasping for air. Pushing well past the point of self-parody, Miller has done Will Eisner’s pioneering comicstrip no favors by drenching it in the same self-consciously neo-noir monochrome put to much more compelling use in “Sin City.” Graphic-novel geeks will be enticed by the promise of sleek babes and equally eye-popping f/x, but general audiences will probably pass on this visually arresting but wholly disposable Miller-lite exercise.

Newsarama, which also covered the New York-based junket, is a little more polite about it:

If this film does well enough to rate a sequel, and with some more directorial seasoning under Miller’s belt, perhaps future installments could achieve the greatness this one just frustratingly teases. As it stands, “The Spirit” does a precarious balancing act juxtaposing great moments and terrible ones, leaving audiences likely be split over which makes the greater impression.

And Ain’t It Cool News skewers the film as the worst since “Battlefield Earth.” Ouch.

And now I’ve seen something that has taken the top prize from “Battlefield Earth.” I mean, I honestly thought that would never happen. And it’s not like there aren’t MANY shitty movies made every year, and it’s not like I don’t SEE many of those. In fact, friends of mine and I have recently started a “Bad Movie Night,” where we have an opening act, a main feature, and a dessert: all of incredibly bad film & TV (the last one we did featured a vampire theme, so we started with “Knight Beat” (only available on VHS, but highly recommended), we feasted on the horror that is “Lost Boys 2: The Tribe”, and then for dessert, watched the (very) little-seen, “Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special” (holy crap! Amazing!). They’re our very own “MST3K” nights.

I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve seen the film, though given my general reaction to Frank Miller’s writing the past decade I can’t say my hopes for this film are high (despite the apparently excellent technical aspects of the film) were terribly high even before reading the reviews.

‘O Logan, Where Art Thou?’, a.k.a. another Fox-Marvel movie misses the point

A few days of thinking about the new trailer to “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” that officially hit the web Monday have me downgrading the clip from my first impressions. In case you missed it, here’s the trailer:

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE HD

There’s a lot going on in this clip, but this appears to be a great example of how movies sometimes try really hard to be faithful to the comics and yet somehow still get it completely wrong. These clips show interesting bits and pieces of the character’s comic book history, starting with “Origin” and progressing to the pivotal Silver Fox-Sabretooth story that first appeared about 20 years ago in Wolverine #10. So far, so good.

What’s most problematic is the introduction of William Stryker and the implication that Logan turned to the Weapon X program intentionally to get back at Sabretooth. Stryker was made part of Logan’s past in the franchise-best “X2,” but this particular change is a major one for the character that significantly alters his entire motivation and points out just how much the character has changed (and not necessarily for the better) in his nearly 35-year history.

The first real definition of the character came at the hands of Chris Claremont, who wrote Logan almost esclusively from 1975 to the early 1990s, and evolved Logan from a wild man whose instinct for mayhem won out over brain power to the famed “failed samurai” of the Frank Miller-drawn 1982 miniseries. Much of the character’s appeal to fans came from Claremont’s resistance to nail down an origin or a past for Logan — in retrospect, a great idea for the way it teased fans used to having every aspect of a character’s life and motivation fully laid out before them. Logan himself stated on many occasions that he cared not a whit for who was responsible for what happened to him or for digging up his lost memories. He lived in the present, and eventually a little bit for the future.

But Wolverine’s popularity couldn’t keep writers from trying to fill in Logan’s past. Barry Windsor Smith’s “Weapon X” was the first, but while it portrayed the event of how Logan got his claws it was wisely light on the details of who was responsible. What was definitely clear was that this was done to him against his will — and the trauma it caused largely responsible for his lack of control over himself and his lost memories. This still worked within the overall X-Men universe, as the forces that experimented on Logan against his will was another example of the mutant-human conflict.

So having Logan turn to Stryker and willingly undergo the Weapon X procedure and join Stryker’s special team is a radical change. Instead of a wild loner, or victim of experimentation, Logan’s now motivated by his desire for revenge on Sabretooth. This is a more conventional character, but that’s not surprising given the direction the comics (and the movies) have been taking for years now. Fox could have made a much more distinctive movie if they’d gone the Japan route — but it appears that’s the last thing the studio expects from its superhero franchises.

Looking at the rest of the trailer, the sheer number of mutants appearing in this film is impressive, though in danger of treading on the comics’ unfortunate tendancy to connect everyone to everyone else at every opportunity by throwing in Emma Frost and what looks like a young Storm. (Young Scott Summers is apparently in the movie, too.) Gambit looks good, though I’m still not sold on Liev Shrieber as Sabretooth. And the final line Jackman delivers just lacks the kind of aggression you’d expect from the character.

In the meantime, we’ve got “The Spirit,” which is increasingly looking like niche fare (I haven’t seen it yet), and “Watchmen,” which is becoming so big a movie that it likely will affect how Hollywood treats superhero movies for years to come — for good or ill.

Bits: Jackman hosts Oscars; Kahn and Eastwood; VFX contenders

Deadlines and holiday travel have limited posting this week, bur here’s a few tidbits that I came across:

* I haven’t seen if the trailer for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” that’s supposed to be running before “The Day the Earth Stood Still” has been made available online yet. But Hugh Jackman’s all over the place, having been named the host for this year’s Oscars telecast.

* Looking at the newspaper ads for Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” I spotted a name in the credits familiar to comics readers of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: Jenette Kahn. An exec producer on the film, Kahn was publisher and/or editor in chief of DC Comics for something like 25 years.

* No fewer than four comic book movies made the cut for the Oscar’s visual effects semifinals: “The Dark Knight,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” That list of 15 contenders will be pared down to seven for the famous VFX bakeoff in January, with the top three from that event getting actual nominations.

* And Bettie Page, queen of 1950s pinup girls and inspiration for countless comic artists, has died at age 85.

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