A few weeks ago, I was thinking back fondly about Heinlein’s juvenile novels. I used to read those all the time even once I aged out of the YA target audience. These hold up nicely. Not too long ago, Joanne and I enjoyed Starman Jones and Have Space Suit Will Travel as audiobooks on a long drive or three.
My nostalgia turned to the Jupiter Novels. In the mid to late 90’s, Tor books published this series as an homage to these works of Heinlein. I read a couple and they were pretty good. Maybe I’d like to reread a couple of those or track down the ones I hadn’t read, I thought.
By an odd coincidence or a creepy not-a-coincidence, if Facebook is eavesdropping on us, I soon received an e-mail from Arc Manor Publishers offering a free copy of the e-book of The Billion Dollar Boy by Charles Sheffield. This was one of the Jupiter Novels and it was one that, to the best of my recollection, I had not read.
And it was fine. After the first couple of pages, I knew in broad brushstrokes how the plot would unfold. The main character, a spoiled rich kid would, through some contrivance, end up in space. He’d be forced to earn his keep while he discovers amazing things and some dramatic stuff occurs. By the end, of course, he’s no longer an entitled jackass. Wikipedia tells me this is essentially the same plot as Captains Courageous.
But even with the predictability, this is a fun read. The story moves along quickly. The happenings are engaging, the conflict is exciting and the resolution is satisfying. The Billion Dollar Boy is nothing more or less than the science fiction equivalent of ordering comfort food in a restaurant. It’s not exactly what you grew up with and it’s fundamentally unchallenging but it’s reminiscent enough to be enjoyable.
Two things that you should know about me: I like cats and I like comics. One of my favorite novels is The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein because it features, in Petronius the Arbiter, possibly the greatest cat character in all of literature. Combining these two interests, I recently did a pretty extensive overview of Chewie the Cat from Captain Marvel for this very blog. You can find it here: The Book of Goose.
So, when I saw the cover of Marvel Action: Captain Marvel #1, I knew I had to pick up a copy. Sadly, it’s insipid; the very thing I feared back when Disney first bought Marvel.
I’m not really a fan of Disney the corporation. Walt, as far as I know, was great. From his drive to make his parks amazing to the “this-is-how-we’ll-go-to-Mars” programs with Werner Von Braun to the whole cryogenics thing. Fascinating stuff from end to end. But in high school, I would occasionally read the Mickey Mouse strip in the Sunday paper and it was terrible. It was unfunny, preachy and an insult to the intelligence of anyone who happened to read it. When The Tao of Pooh was on the best seller list and I decided to write a parody called The Hedonism of Tigger with the premise that, to borrow a different metaphor, eastern philosophy is Mr. Miyagi while America philosophy is Cobra Kai. It never got written but while I was thinking about the project, I did buy and read Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. When I did, I realized how diminished these works were in the Disney adaptations I had liked as a kid. When you watch the original Disney Pooh shorts, Tigger, for example, is merely the wacky, gregarious comic relief who likes to bounce.
In the original books, Tigger has a child-like quality that to me comes across as a charming innocence. He’s a much richer character and he still loves to bounce. Occasional, accidental encounters with bits of the Disney Afternoon in the days before TiVo convinced me that, at least in the 90s, modern Disney entertainment was predominantly an empty vessel.
Let me back up a bit. What the hell am I reading? It’s not your everyday Marvel Comic. Disney has thankfully left those pretty much alone. The “Marvel Action” line is a collection of comics featuring Marvel characters that are not published by Marvel. Disney has licensed the characters to IDW and according to the descriptions on line, these carry an “all ages” rating. I think I understand that; early Warner Brothers’ cartoons were delightful and entertaining for kids but they also contained plenty of entertainment value for adults as well. Older viewers might recognize Edward G. Robinson or characters taken directly from Of Mice and Men. And who could forget this masterpiece, which makes a pretty salient point about the Arms Race?
But that doesn’t seem right. Other descriptions suggest that this comic is for “Middle grades” and I discover that that means ages 8 to 12. Middle grades, I guess, for back in the long-long-ago when elementary school lasted until grade 8. That doesn’t seem right either. I started reading comics when I was 8 and even then I can’t imagine having the patience for this comic. I still remember reading the three comics pictured below when I was 8 and I enjoyed them.
Those were far more complex than Marvel Action: Captain Marvel. Maybe I’m wrong about what “all ages” means. Maybe it means “really little kids.” I look up some lists of “all ages books.” Nope. My first thought was right. Harry Potter and The Hobbit aren’t my cup of tea, but they’re interesting. Shel Silverstein makes my skin crawl but ditto. I know I could sit down right now with a Dr. Seuss, or Where The Wild Things Are or Harold and the Purple Crayon and enjoy it. The Winnie-the-Pooh books are excellent! And evidently there’s something called Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. I want to read that right now! Why does the pigeon want to drive the bus? Does it even have a license? Is the regular driver ill? I want to know! All of this is great stuff. Sadly, what’s not great is Marvel Action: Captain Marvel #1.
IDW’s Captain Marvel is exactly like the Disney Afternoon shows from the 1990’s. Simplistic and uninteresting. There are no layers, no nuance, nothing to interest anyone other than small children. I also find the art off putting. It looks rushed to me. More distracting is the fact that the two main characters are women, presumably in their early 30s, and they’re drawn like children. I’ve seen some of Sweeney Boo’s other work and it’s far better.
Clearly this comic wasn’t written for me, not even 8-year old me, but it might be fine for little kids. The cats are cute and there’s a thread of story. And if there’s anything that would intrigue small children about the Captain Marvel story, it would be Goose. Or Chewie. Whomever. So, that’s a good place to start and the book works somewhat well on that level. But it’s a weak effort that diminishes the Marvel brand and I worry what the long term effects of that might be.
Marvel Action Captain Marvel, IDW Publishing, August 2019
I read the first issue of the New Superior Spider-Man when it first came out and I wasn’t inspired to invest in the series. Not even Terrax was enough to inspire me to purchase issue 2. But while my car was being serviced, I noticed that the first issue was available on Marvel Unlimited. I decided to give it a second read. It did not get better. The set up is obvious, Dr. Octopus’ mind now resides in a cloned body of Peter Parker, with all of the powers that implies. He’s teaching at Horizon University in San Francisco and trying to be a better hero than Peter. The whole thing has a perfunctory “been there, done that” kind of a feel. It’s the same themes as volume 1 without having Peter’s story to bolster my interest.
The art isn’t superior either; it’s competent, but all the characters look like posed manikins. I’ve seen people talking about how they really like this series and it isn’t terrible. Maybe I’ll return to it in a couple of years, once the entire run is on Marvel Unlimited, but then again, maybe not. I can’t see investing in this series for the individual issues.
Also, do you remember a time when comic book companies tried not to overexpose their characters? In the 1940s Superman, Batman and Flash couldn’t be in the JSA because each had his own book. Similar policies persisted for a long time. But now Peter has two books, Miles, Gwen and Otto have books and there’s something called “Symbiote Spider-Man.” If Marvel isn’t careful, we’ll all have brand fatigue before long.
I’ve been reading comics since 1973, but I really have no idea who the Eternals are. I know they were created by Kirby and I remember Sersi being an Avenger for a while. And I know there’s that one guy who wears the Superman color scheme, whose name I feel like I should know. That’s about it, although I just learned that Eternals #2 is the first appearance of the Celestials, which intrigues me. I’m going to take the plunge and learn about these guys in advance of their movie. To that end, here’s a review of their first issue.
You may wonder how, being a Marvel guy, I missed the Eternals. Blame economics. My limited reading budget in 6th grade was progressively being focused on novels and I quit comics cold turkey (not to worry, I came back) when the cover price went up to 30¢. That gave me two months to notice the Eternals, but I never actually did.
Spoilers follow if one can spoil something published 43 years ago.
When I was in college, I tried to read Harlan Ellison’s “For I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” three times. The first page is both excellent and electrifying. Offbeat and dark, it leaves you dying to know what happens next. I never found out. Each time I lost interest around the third page and I never successfully finished the story. Eternals #1 is a lot like that.
The first four pages are spectacular. The splash page is dominated by a “Kirby machine,” with small characters in the corner teasing some sort of great discovery. This expands to an amazing and intricate two-page spread. The Kirby machine of the first page is the head of the Incas’ “Space God.” The discovery is a huge statue of the Space God in his vehicle with myriad attendants along side and there’s so much interesting detail that you could pour over this page for quite some time. Page 4, another full page shows more of the Gods’ (now plural) equipment.
But then it gets kind of tedious. One of the characters is named Ike Harris and it dawns on me that the guy with the fashion sense of Superman might be called Ikaris. He is. Inwardly, I sigh; my least favorite thing about Kirby-as-writer is his names and these are going to be as cheesy as usual. Ikaris reveals himself to be an Eternal and he is searching for a Cosmic Beacon. He wants to summon the Gods so that they will return to Earth.
We’re also introduced to the Deviants. Monstrous creature’s with names like “Dog,” “Kro” and “Tode.” They’re as determined to prevent the Gods’ return as Ikaris is to bring it about.
Along the way we learn more about the Space Gods. They are aliens who came to Earth ages ago and genetically manipulated the ape creatures they found here. This lead to the creation of three species. The Humans, the Deviants who are genetically unstable with no fixed form and the godlike Eternals who are few in number, powerful and immortal.
Interesting, but still ultimately tedious. One reason, I realized, is that in panel after panel, the captions do nothing but describe what’s clearly happening in the artwork. I had thought that Kirby’s writing had improved a great deal by this point, but this undermines that. If anyone should understand “show, don’t tell,” it’s an Artist/writer.
Like a lot of Kirby’s writing, there’s lots of good ideas but I find the execution kind of flat. I remind myself that this is an introductory issue and those can be dull; the characters have to be introduced, the situations have to be laid and out and the universe needs to be built. That calls for a lot of exposition and that can leave very little room for story.
Unlike a lot of Kirby’s writing, it feels derivative. There is very little that feels new. The premise is essentially the same as 2001: A Space Odyssey which Kirby had just adapted a few months before. This comic falls between the 2001 Treasury Edition and 2001 the ongoing series which, at least so far, I find a lot more interesting. The rest of the story feels a lot like the Inhumans with some of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods mixed in.
The cliffhanger at the end of the issue is that the Space Gods have arrived and we’re told they’re called the Celestials. I’m still intrigued. More to come.
When I want to comment on something, but I don’t have a hell of a lot to say, I’m going to label it a “Quick Take.”
So, I just saw the Dark Phoenix movie. I had to. The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the high points of superhero comics. It’s also one of the things that I was really excited about when I was getting back into comics. Without the Dark Phoenix saga, we might have an entire other room for something other than comics.
This movie definitely benefited from low expectation. I’d literally heard nothing good about this film. And by-and-large, what I’d heard was fair. But sitting in the theater, it was okay; better than I was expecting. I didn’t hate it, and on balance, I’m not unhappy I saw it.
But, make no mistake; this is not a good movie. There’s a death that felt gratuitous and there are plot elements that feel either tacked on or poorly thought out. The biggest problem for me was that the original Dark Phoenix was all about internal conflict. It’s a long build up to Jean being corrupted by the power and changing from Phoenix to Dark Phoenix. Ultimately, Jean is the hero of the story because she sacrifices herself to keep her friends safe. The movie shares a lot of these elements, but unfolds in what seems to be about 72 hours. These elements are all eliminated or trivialized. If you’re looking for this dimension of the story, you’d do better to reread the original.
My favorite thing about the movie is that it was nice to see the old-school Marvel logo with the flipping comic images rather than the movie clip version that they now use in Marvel Studios Films.
It seemed natural to follow up on Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by reading his run of issues in Machine Man, #1-9. Indeed, the last three issues of 2001 are closer to being a prolog for this series than they are a coda for that one.
The first issue is a bit jarring. There’s a near complete reset of supporting characters despite coming only seven months after 2001 #10. Visually, the first nine issues are pure Kirby goodness that escape the excessive cheesiness that diminish some of his other writing efforts. In these issues, it seems that the book isn’t intended to exist within the Marvel Universe. That makes sense as it continued from a licensed series which compared the character to the “Marvel Superheroes” in a way that doesn’t seem natural within that universe. The writing is kind of klunky in places. There’s a lot of what Star Trek fans would call “technobabble” as Machine Man demonstrates some new ability or other and Colonel Kragg (a character precisely in the General Ross motif) reminds us that he lost an eye battling the other robots in the X series virtually every single time that he appears. Not a great collection of books, less interesting than the 2001 series it sprang from but still, an enjoyable read.
The series seems to end here, promising a follow-up in Incredible Hulk. But the cancellation became a hiatus and the series was resurrected after a few months. More on that later. Probably.
Jim Kosmicki inspired me to look at the timing of this. It turns out this is the very moment Jack left Marvel for the last time to work in animation. His last work for Marvel was Machine Man #9 and Devil Dinosaur #9, both cover-dated December 1978. Devil Dinosaur ended permanently. I don’t know if the Machine Man revival was planned or if he proved popular enough in the Hulk issues to justify restarting the book.
Finally finished this run on Saturday and read ‘em today. The first 7 issues are a lot of fun and… trippy. The first few issues follow the pattern established in the movie. The monolith encounters a creature in the far past; it then encounters a character in a near-future setting and that character is evolved into a star child. The star child then moves on to other adventures. The themes continue, but the narrative loosens as the series progresses.
It’s impressive to me that Kirby was able to draw on the concepts of the Movie and the novel in non-trivial, substantive ways. I’m not generally a fan of Kirby as a writer. The Inhumans run in Amazing Adventures is a great example; it’s hard to overstate how much better those got after Thomas and Adams took over. But Kirby had clearly grown a lot as a writer over the intervening 6-7 years. These were spot on and much better than I’d expected.
Machine Man is introduced in issue 8 and the 2001 stuff fades into the background as the book shifts to a standard superhero narrative. Still good though. Overall, a fun read.