Leonard Nimoy: 1931 to 2015

Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27th at the age of 83.  It’s odd when someone you literally grew up watching on television and in movies dies.  In the last two days others have written extensively about Nimoy’s numerous, varied accomplishments throughout the decades.  I would certainly recommend taking a look at the piece by Darren at the m0vie blog.  Darren has written some of the most insightful, intelligent reviews of Star Trek that I have ever come across, so of course he offers a worthy appraisal of Nimoy’s life & career.

For my part, I am going to just offer some brief thoughts on Nimoy’s amazing portrayal of the character of Spock on the various incarnations of Star Trek, the science fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry and developed by a variety of talented writers such as Gene L. Coon & D.C. Fontana.

Star Trek VI Spock

Leonard Nimoy did amazing work bringing Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer of the Starship Enterprise, to life. The original Star Trek was broadcast from 1966 to 1969.  This was an era when television series were extremely episodic, characterization was one-dimensional, and there weren’t any sort of extended arcs that developed long-term subplots or depicted the evolution of the characters over a period of time.  Within these constraints, during three wildly uneven seasons of Star Trek, Nimoy nevertheless succeeded in communicating the continuing struggles of Spock to reconcile his Vulcan and human backgrounds, to adhere to the Vulcan ideal of non-emotion while finding a place among a crew of highly emotional human beings.  Spock was in a number of ways the perennial outsider.  He was a character who I expect a great many viewers could identify with.

The chemistry between the three leads in Star Trek was very apparent.  Nimoy as Spock, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy all possessed an excellent rapport.  Whereas Spock represented logic, McCoy was the personification of human sentiment, of acting upon feeling, and the two had a very contentious friendship.  It fell to Kirk to listen to Spock and McCoy’s two disparate world views and to strive to find the correct balance between intellect and emotion that was necessary to resolve each episode’s crisis.

Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock was often very moving.  Certain moments invariably stand out, such as from “The Devil in the Dark” written by Gene L. Coon, broadcast on March 9, 1967.  That episode was one of the best examples of Roddenberry’s hopes for a future where humanity would learn to embrace tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness.  Coon’s script sees the Enterprise crew working to prevent a mysterious, deadly alien from destroying the Janus VI mining colony.  As the episode progresses, we learn that the Horta is no savage, mindless killer.  Rather, it is a mother attempting to prevent the accidental destruction of her nests of eggs by the miners.

Spock’s mind meld with the Horta, when the truth about the entity is uncovered, is one of the most iconic moments from the original Star Trek.  Nimoy’s acting in it was an absolutely crucial component in making this scene genuinely believable, in helping to convince the audience that a living rock pile that resembled a giant pizza pie was a thinking, feeling, sentient being.  It is one of the best examples I know of where intelligent writing and quality acting more than overcame the hurtles of primitive special effects and a shoestring budget.

Just a week ago I was watching “The Enterprise Incident” written by D.C. Fontana, originally broadcast September 27, 1968.  I think that “The Enterprise Incident” is one of the most morally complex, cynical episodes of the original Star Trek.  Fontana’s script sees Starfleet sending Kirk and Spock on a covert mission to steal a cloaking device from the Romulans.  In the process they violate the treaty with the Romulan Empire and engage in overt acts of espionage.

(There are some fans of the series who believe that the sixth Star Trek movie and the 1990s spin-off series Deep Space Nine portrayed Starfleet and the Federation in an unfavorable light contrary to Roddenberry’s original intentions.  I would argue that certain episodes of the original series such as “The Enterprise Incident” demonstrated that there was always a morally ambiguous, harshly pragmatic side to those institutions.)

Star Trek The Enterprise Incident

“The Enterprise Incident” features one of Nimoy’s best performances from the original series. Spock’s stoic devotion to logic and duty is apparent in his carrying out his orders and performing Starfleet’s dirty work.  At the end you also witness the tangible regret that he feels at having been required to assume the devious role of a spy & double agent, in deceiving the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville), who he had developed a genuine fondness for, in order to help Starfleet achieve its goals.  At the end, reflecting on how all of Starfleet’s machinations have probably only achieved a temporary strategic advantage, Spock acknowledges to the Romulan Commander “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all. I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.”  Nimoy’s delivery of the line was very effective and thoughtful.

Nimoy’s wonderful portrayal of Spock continued within the Star Trek movies. Spock’s striving towards the purging of all emotion, only to realize the emptiness of pure logic, was one of the few strong points in the uneven Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Although his character was not a central focus in The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s sacrifice the save the Enterprise at the end of was incredibly moving.  Under the superb direction of Nicholas Meyer, Nimoy and Shatner played the scene perfectly.

Nimoy slipped into the director’s chair for the third and fourth movies, doing quality work.  In the later, The Voyage Home, Nimoy’s performance as the resurrected Spock, once again seeking to find the balance between his dual heritages, was very good.  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country saw the characters of Spock and Kirk at odds with one another over the possibility of a future where the Federation and the Klingon Empire could be at peace.  Once again directed by Meyer, both Nimoy and Shatner turned in solid performances as Spock and Kirk contemplated the idea of growing old, and of the universe moving on without them.

On a more personal note, as someone who is Jewish, as a child I remember being pleasantly surprised when I learned that Leonard Nimoy was of that faith.  Nimoy very much embraced his heritage, and was proud of his Judaism.  Yet he never let that pride blind him.  He recognized the importance of people from different backgrounds working to find common ground and understanding.  As the co-writer of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy was inspired by looking at the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the hostility between Israel and the Arab nations of the Middle East, and by his hope that these different peoples could one day learn to peacefully co-exist.

Nimoy’s character Spock often expressed the sentiment “Live long and prosper.”  Those are certainly words that Nimoy himself lived by.  He will be missed.

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #201-202

Malcolm Dragon has female trouble… lots and lots of female trouble.

Following on from the events of Savage Dragon #200 from Image Comics, Malcolm is still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he’s had a threesome with his girlfriend Maxine and his stepsister Angel.  As the next two issues unfold Malcolm realizes that Maxine, having recently moved out of her ultra-traditional parents’ house, is going more than a little crazy exploring her newfound independence.

Savage Dragon 201 cover

In issue #201, Malcolm learns that Maxine secretly videotaped their kinky tryst.  Then, while Malcolm is MIA after a battle with the Vicious Circle, his ex-girlfriend Tierra comes by looking for a place to crash and Maxine decides to let her stay over.  Malcolm, meanwhile, gets a phone call from Angel, who is having second thoughts about her relationship with Daredevil, and is hoping she can stay over at her stepbrother’s apartment for the holidays.  And, well, by the time the issue comes to a close, I pretty much figured out where Erik Larsen was going with this.

Yep, as expected, issue #202 sees Maxine convincing Malcolm, Tierra and Angel to have a go at a four-way.  And, honestly, for a few pages there, I really felt like Larsen had dragged Savage Dragon into cheesy porno territory.  However he then actually turned things around pretty quickly.  Right after their romp in the sack, Angel started to remember that, hey, she doesn’t actually like Tierra all that much.  Then Maxine was alarmed to find out that her stunt has gotten Tierra interested in Malcolm again, and jealousy began to rear its ugly head.  Well, jealousy and a knuckle sandwich.

By the time the #202 comes to a close Malcolm is really is not happy with any of this.  He told Maxine “I can’t have anybody else in my bed and I don’t want you inviting anybody else into it. I don’t want to share you ever again. I can’t take it. It drives me up the wall.”  Maxine realized just how much Malcolm cares for her, and she agreed that they’ll be monogamous going forward.

Savage Dragon 202 pg 19

Thinking it over, all of this is actually believable.  All four of these characters are teenagers.  They’re still maturing, and of course they’re going to be interested in experimenting sexually.  I’m sure most of us were like that in our teens and twenties.  You hang out, have a few too many to drink, impulsively hook with someone, and do all sorts of crazy stuff.  Then, come the next morning, in the light of day, when you’re doing the walk of shame, trying to shake off a honking big hangover, you’re left thinking to yourself “Why the hell did I sleep with that person?!?”

So even though there was no booze involved in Larsen’s story, he has Malcolm and Maxine going through pretty much that sort of thing.  They acted impulsively, and then afterwards realized that while it can sometimes be fun to experiment and try different stuff, at the end of the day what they both really want is a committed relationship based on genuine feelings.

Paralleling Malcolm’s sexual travails is his continuing struggle with the Vicious Circle.  The crime cartel’s leader Dart has broken out of prison.  From the remnants of the Circle’s ranks she has organized an all-female cadre of followers.  They embark on a raid of Bellco Chemicals, hoping to seize the mutagenic substances created by the corporation in order to enhance their powers.  And once Malcolm comes charging in to stop them, he finds he once again has his hands full with feisty ladies.  Of course, these women don’t want to hop into bed with him; they want to kill him.

Malcolm’s fights with Dart and her lieutenants in these two issues were certainly fun.  Larsen does a great job illustrating superhero action.  But truthfully I was more interested in how he developed the relationship between Malcolm and Maxine.  That’s one of the qualities of Savage Dragon that I have always appreciated, that Larsen gives his characters personal lives.  It’s not just a bunch of costumed characters punching each other in the face… although there is, of course, plenty of that!

Larsen also continues to experiment artistically and to utilize different types of storytelling.  Issue #202 was an interesting undertaking.  Larsen drew every single page to have nine panels, with a different layout on each page.  He was inspired to undertake this after seeing one of those myriad Batman slapping Robin memes.  This particular one claimed “There are no big shots on a nine panel page!”

Batman nine panel meme

This prompted Larsen to respond “Well, that’s bullshit — of course there can be a big panel — just draw the other panels smaller.”  And he set out to prove exactly that.

This is one of the major reasons why I really admire Larsen.  After working on Savage Dragon for more than two decades, rather than being satisfied settling into a comfortable rhythm, he continually stretches his boundaries, both as an artist and a writer.  He’ll enthusiastically embrace something like the challenge of drawing nine panels on every single page of an issue.  And he’ll be ready to upend the status quo at the drop of a hat, to throw in all sorts of unexpected plot twists, if he believes it will lead to more interesting stories.

Savage Dragon 201 pg 24

Savage Dragon #s 201 & 202 also includes the final two chapters of the Vanguard back-up serial written by Gary Carlson and drawn by Frank Fosco.  Carlson appears to be bringing to a close a number of plotlines that he has been spinning through various miniseries and back-up stories over the past twenty plus years.  He seems to have pretty well wrapped up the story arcs of his extended cast of characters, while at the same time leaving open the possibility of future adventures for Vanguard, Roxanne, Wally and Lurch.  The art by Fosco is very good.  He’s a talented artist, so I’m always happy to see his work.

With the Vanguard serial concluded, I hope that future issues of Savage Dragon will include short stories featuring other characters from the book’s gigantic supporting cast.  Editor Gavin Higginbotham has previously written some cool back-ups and I’d be glad to see him come back for more fun.

Valentine’s Day artwork: Captain America and Sharon Carter

Today’s blog post is brought to you by the flu.  Yeah, I’ve been stuck at home most of the week with a fever, congestion and coughing.  I am so sick of being sick.

Anyway, with all this time on my hands, and with Valentine’s Day coming up on Saturday, I decided to do a follow-up to my piece from last year on Captain America and Diamondback.

To make a long story short, because one of these days I might want to devote another post to the subject… Captain America’s first major romantic interest of the Silver Age was Sharon Carter aka Agent 13 of S.H.I.E.L.D.  She was introduced in Tales of Suspense #75 (March 1966) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.  Unfortunately, like many other female characters in the 1960s and 70s, Sharon was sometimes not especially well-written.  Reading some of those stories today, they are very sexist.

Also, from 1977 to 1979 there was a definite problem of “musical chairs” on the Captain America series, with writers coming and going faster than you could keep count.  The book abruptly changed directions several times.  Along the way, Sharon was shunted off-stage and then brought back just long enough to die a rather unconvincing death in the pages of issue #237 (Sept 1979).

Sharon actually stayed dead for quite some time until she was finally brought back by Mark Waid & Ron Garney in Captain America #445 (Nov 1995) where it was revealed that someone had faked her death and she had gone missing behind enemy lines.  We never got any sort of coherent, detailed explanation because Waid & Garney’s run was brutally cut short by “Heroes Reborn.”  Thank you sooooo much, Rob Liefeld!

Whatever it was that actually happened, when Cap was reunited with his lost love she was now angry, cynical and suffering from PTSD.  Quite obviously she and Cap did not simply pick up where they left off years before.

After the “Heroes Reborn” fiasco, Waid came back to write Captain America for a couple of years, and then left again due to disagreements with editorial.  His replacement was Dan Jurgens, who several issues later also became the penciler.  For most of his run he was paired with the talented Bob Layton on inks.  The artwork by them was high quality.

Captain America v3 50 pg 48 original art

I will readily acknowledge that I found Jurgens’ writing on Captain America to be hit or miss.  Nevertheless, among the positive aspects of his time on the series, he mellowed Sharon Carter out.  She was still a much stronger, confident, independent character than she had been for much of the 1960s and 70s, but without the bitterness that Waid had given her.

Waid started a subplot with Steve Rogers becoming romantically involved with an attorney named Connie Ferrari, and Jurgens continued that.  Of course, under Jurgens’ pen, Connie became (with apologies to Dean Haspiel) a total “freak magnet.”  She was a perfectly normal, everyday woman who just kept attracting strange people.  Connie was already dating Steve Rogers without realizing he was Captain America.  Jurgens then unmasked one of Connie’s major clients as the leader of a faction of the techno-terrorist group A.I.M.  Jurgens also revealed that Connie’s brother David, who she believed had died years before in a military hazing, was actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who went missing on a covert op, and who had now resurfaced as the criminal mastermind “The Answer” who planned to blackmail the world with the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

(And what is up with S.H.I.E.L.D. losing all of these agents behind enemy lines?  For the world’s top intelligence agency they seem to misplace a lot of personnel.)

Connie finally had enough with all this weirdness and moved out of NYC to start fresh, breaking up with Steve in the process.  This left the field clear for Steve and Sharon, who had discovered they still had feelings for one another, to have another go at a relationship.

The scanned page of original artwork above is from Captain America volume 3 #50 (Feb 2002).  It’s actually the very last page by Jurgens & Layton on the series.  The story “To the Core” is really something of an excuse to have guest artists such as John Romita, Sal Buscema and Mike Zeck contribute pin-up pages that look back at various points on Cap’s eventful life.  It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it looks nice.  And that final page by Jurgens & Layton is beautiful, a very romantic image of Cap and Sharon on a cliff by the sea looking at the sun rise.

I purchased this page of art from Spencer Beck of The Artist’s Choice who represents both Jurgens and Layton, along with numerous other talented artists.  Thanks again, Spencer.

The rest of Captain America #50 was, well, just weird.  In stories by other creators Cap is apparently killed fighting a cult of geriatric Nazi war criminals and there’s a big funeral held for him.  That was it for volume three.

A few months later the series re-started under the Marvel Knights banner, with Steve Rogers visiting Ground Zero in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, with no explanation for how he had come back, or even an acknowledgment that he had been dead in the first place.  And from that awkward start the Marvel Knight run stumbled along for the next two and a half years, telling some barely-comprehensible stories.  But, again, that’s a subject for another time.

Captain America v3 40 pg 20

In any case, a lasting impact of Jurgens’ run on Captain America was that Sharon Carter was once more fully active in S.H.I.E.L.D., and she and Steve Rogers were again romantically involved.  That was how things stood in late 2004 when Ed Brubaker came onboard as the series’ new writer.  Working from that he and his artistic collaborators told some of the best stories to ever feature the characters.

So this Valentine’s Day, let us think fondly of Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter.  After numerous deaths, resurrections, manipulations by mind control, times stranded in other dimensions, losses of powers, and assorted bizarre developments for both of them they’re still together.  At least, I think they are.  Okay, if they aren’t, just give it another reboot or two by Marvel Comics and I’m sure they’ll be a couple once again!

By the way, for those who missed it the first time, Dan Jurgens’ run on Captain America was collected into three trade paperbacks a few years ago.  They’re worth picking up.  They may not be the all-time greatest Cap stories ever, but they’re still fun, and the artwork is fantastic.

Comic book reviews: Love and Rockets New Stories #7

Ever since Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez switched to the annual New Stories format, every issue has come out around September… until now.  September 2014 came and went, with no Love and Rockets.  Well we finally have a new issue, with Fantagraphics releasing New Stories #7 this month.  Was it worth the wait?  Yep!

Love and Rockets: New Stories #7 features a Jaime Hernandez cover.  That is such a typical Maggie Chascarillo image.  Ever since she started to become curvy in her 20s, Maggie has often stressed over her appearance, worrying that she was fat.  Jaime has always been brilliant at investing his characters with personality & emotion, and his illustration of Maggie speaks volumes.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 cover

The cover ties in very well with the interior stories.  Maggie and her long-time best friend Hopey Glass are meeting up for the first time in a number of years.  Back in the day the two were inseparable, and on several occasions they tried to have a romantic relationship.  But inevitably those attempts would implode, and leave both of them hurt & angry.

Maggie has been in a relationship with Ray Dominguez for the last several years, helping him recover from a severe brain injury.  Hopey married her girlfriend Sadaf, and the two of them had a child together.  Even though Maggie and Hopey have been on their separate paths for some time, now that they’ve met up for a reunion of their friends in Hoppers inevitably the old attraction between the two begins to simmer beneath the surface.

When Love and Rockets started out over 30 years ago, Maggie and Hopey were teens, which would make them now both in their late 40s, I should guess.  Jaime does excellent work is this issue showing how the two of them react to at the various changes to each other’s lives, and to their old home town.  Maggie and Hopey both begin to realize that sometimes you can’t go home again, both literally and figuratively.

Jaime peeks in on Ray from time to time.  It’s a measure of how much Jaime is able to make his readers care about his characters that I was genuinely relieved to see Ray on the mend from his injuries. Likewise, the anxiety that Ray feels is palpable.  As much as he knows that he and Maggie love each other, he also recognizes the feelings that Maggie and Hopey have.  It is understandable that he is genuinely worried he could lose Maggie.

We also check back in with Tonta.  Her and her dysfunctional siblings are still dealing with the fallout of her mother going on trial for killing her husband.  Even though their mother was acquitted, the rest of the family realizes that she actually did do it, and are struggling with how to cope with this.  Tonta’s sister Violet is very ineffectually trying to shield Tonta from it.  Fed up with the drama at home, Tonta keeps running away to hang out with her friends.

Finally, Jaime gives us an all-too-brief update on Angel Rivera, who is both Maggie’s friend and Tonta’s former high school coach.  Hopefully we will see more of Angel in the next installment.  She is a fun character, and I want to find out how her current difficulties resolve themselves.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 pg 15

In his half of New Stories #7, Gilbert Hernandez once again looks at the various members of his extended cast, taking a multi-generational journey through the decades.  Gilbert, like Jaime, touches upon the passing of time, of how people and places change.

Anchoring the story in the present day is Killer.  Through her latest trip to Palomar, we see how that community has both stayed the same and change.  On the one hand, there is the now-adult Theo, still gathering buckets of slugs to sell in the village, much as he did many years past with the late Tonantzín.  Theo even alludes to her, and seeing Killer in his company you are struck by the similarities between the two.

On the other, cell phones and iPads are now commonplace in Palomar, a place that only a decade or so in the past didn’t even have telephone land lines.  Witnessing one of the town’s teens watching a movie on a handheld device, Killer wistfully observes “My grandma used to have a movie theater here. Now you all watch movies that way.”  This she states while holding hammer in hand, standing in a manner very much like her grandmother Luba.

It is interesting that the character of Killer sees Gilbert moving his stories forward towards the future, chronicling the latest generation.  Yet aspects of Killer invariably evoke Luba, Gilbert’s iconic protagonist from Love and Rockets series one.  Killer appears to embody one of the central themes of Gilbert’s writing, the idea that while time inevitably marches on the events of the past will still continue to influence the present.

Inspired by her great-grandmother Maria and her great-aunt Fritz, Killer is still doing work as an actress, although for her it is just a hobby, something that is fun.  She really just wants to lead an ordinary life.  Consequently, Killer is very alarmed when, much like Fritz before her, she finds that she has gained a few extremely obsessive fans.

I wonder if Gilbert was influenced by his own experiences as an acclaimed comic book creator.  Obviously something like 99.9% of Love and Rockets fans are relatively sane, reasonable, well-adjusted people who understand & respect boundaries.  But then there’s that 0.1% you have to watch out for, the ones who probably lurk about eBay trying to find an auction for one of Gilbert’s half-eaten sandwiches that someone retrieved from the garbage at the San Diego Comic Con!

In my review of New Stories #6 I wrote “I never had too much sympathy for Maria in the past.  But thinking it over, I realize that Maria was a flawed woman who led a difficult life, and who did change over time.”  Gilbert returns to his examination of Maria, examining her gradual development over time via a series of moments set through the years entitled “Daughters and Mothers and Daughters.”

As we see Maria with Fritz, first when she was an infant and then a teenager, it is apparent that her Maria really did love her.  Maria made many mistakes, including when it came to how she raised Fritz.  But underneath it all, for all her stumbles, Maria did at least try with Fritz and Petra to be the mother she never was to Luba.

There is a brief scene, some years in the past, where we see Luba’s daughter Doralis, after moving to the United States, discovered Maria.  Doralis asks “Grandma, why don’t you want me to tell anybody in the family about you? My mama and my sisters and brother would love to know that I found you.”  With resignation, Maria responds “No, Doralis. I’m happy that you and I happened upon each other, but… no… it’s too late Doralis. Promise me you won’t tell anybody that we’ve met.”

This is a sad moment.  Maria genuinely believes that she can never repair the damage between her and Luba, make up for the hurt she caused by abandoning her daughter as an infant, and that the past is best left in the past.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 pg 24

Gilbert also devotes part of the issue to one of his movies-within-the-comic-book.  “The Magic Voyage of Aladdin” is one of Fritz’s B-movies, this one co-starring Mila, one of the women who married motivational speaker / con artist Mark Herrera after Fritz divorced him.  As always, I’m left wondering if there is some sort of hidden meaning and subtle subtext to Gilbert’s “movies” or if he’s just having fun sending up genre conventions.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

(For the full details of Fritz’s relationship with Mark, and Mark’s subsequent other disastrous marriages, I recommend picking up the High Soft Lisp trade paperback published by Fantagraphics in 2010.)

Interestingly, Jaime follows Gilbert’s lead with his own movie-within-the-comic-book.  “Princess Animus” is a pulpy, sexy space opera that turns out to be the movie that Maggie and Hopey have been attempting to catch a screening of in the early pages of the issue.

Once again clocking in at 100 pages, the latest edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories has a wealth of material from both of the Hernandez brothers.  Jaime and Gilbert continue to develop their large casts of characters and unfold numerous plotlines in an intriguing manner.  And the artwork from both of them is gorgeous.