Great Scott! Rocky Horror is 40 years old!

Happy Halloween!  Today I’m taking a brief look at the horror comedy musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which made its cinematic debut 40 years ago in 1975.

The movie was an adaptation of The Rocky Horror Show stage musical written by Richard O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman which was first performed in 1973.  It was an homage to / parody of the science fiction and horror movies from the previous decades.  Although the movie initially bombed in theaters, 20th Century Fox ad executive Tim Deegan came up with the idea of moving Rocky Horror to midnight screenings.  In this new venue in various cities, via world of mouth, the movie became a tremendous cult classic.  Since then, for decades avid fans have shown up to either act out the movie and / or heckle at it.

Rocky Horror lips

I can’t recall exactly when I first saw Rocky Horror.  It was probably in the early 1990s when VH1 was airing it.  I realize now that a lot of the movie’s impact was diluted by all the commercials.  But once some friends got it on home video I had an opportunity to watch it uninterrupted.

Back then Rocky Horror struck me as a very bizarre, nonsensical movie.  Even so, I definitely enjoyed the amazing music by O’Brien.  As with other things, as I got older I gradually developed more of an appreciation for it.  A couple of weeks ago Michele bought it on DVD, and we’ve watched it a few times.  It’s a humorous mix of geeky genre elements and campy hyper-sexuality.

The standout performance of the movie is undoubtedly the amazing Tim Curry as the bi-sexual cross-dressing alien mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter.  This was one of Curry’s earliest roles, and watching it you can definitely see why he went on to have such a long & prolific career.

When Curry is on screen as Furter, he just totally owns it.  You really need to have a genuine confidence to successfully pull off such a crazy, over-the-top role like this one, and Curry absolutely possesses that quality.  His performance is so amazing that even though Furter is a dangerous nutjob, he’s nevertheless compellingly charismatic.  Michele is correct when she states “Tim Curry totally makes the movie.”

Rocky Horror Picture Show

It’s understandable that for many years Curry was reluctant to discuss Rocky Horror.  Furter is such a larger-than-life character, and the movie has such a fanatical following, that it is just the sort of role that could easily threaten to overshadow subsequent work.  Perhaps to a degree that did occur, as throughout his career Curry has often played creepy oddballs.  Nevertheless there’s certainly enough diversity on display in his resume that it is apparent he was able to at least partially dodge the typecasting bullet.

As I mentioned, I love the music.  O’Brien’s lyrics are clever and funny.  I’ve had the soundtrack on CD for years now.  “The Time Warp” is the one everyone knows.  Myself, I’ve always had a real fondness for “Science Fiction Double Feature,” “There’s A Light” and “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”  But they’re all good.

O’Brien also plays the creepy handyman Riff Raff.  He’s another actor who grabs your attention when he’s on the screen, albeit in a much more understated, sinister manner.  It’s not at all surprising that based on his performance here director Alex Proyas later cast O’Brien in the brilliant, criminally underrated science fiction noir movie Dark City.

O’Brien has good chemistry with actress Patricia Quinn, who plays his sister Magenta.  The two of them have such a weird vibe going on between them.  You’re really left wondering if they’ve been getting up to stuff that they shouldn’t!

Rocky Horror Riff Raff Frank and Magenta

Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon play the young couple Brad and Janet.  O’Brien’s script is an interesting subversion of the tropes of mid-20th Century sci-fi and horror movies.  Brad is the clean-cut type and Janet a virginal innocent.  If this were played straight (so to speak) Brad would be the hero who saves Janet from the freaky, demented aliens.

Instead Brad is kind of an asshole (at screenings of the movie the audience frequently shouts that out at him) who is overprotective of and condescending to Janet.  As for Janet, instead of playing a chaste, passive role, she discovers that she is attracted to both Furter and his artificial man, the muscular blonde Rocky.  Furter ends up seducing first Janet and then Brad, and afterwards Janet has sex with Rocky.  At the end the couple is reduced to mere spectators of Furter’s bizarre machinations.  It is Riff Raff & Magenta who step in to wrap things up.

The costume designs for Rocky Horror were by Sue Blane.  Her work is very striking.  It’s not surprising that it would influence fashion and the punk aesthetic of the late 1970s.

Rocky Horror throne scene

If you have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, well, all this must sound really freaky and twisted.  I will be the first to acknowledge that the movie is an acquired taste.  Heck, I really like it, but I doubt that I’ll be going to the theater anytime soon in costume to toss toilet paper at the screen.

Having said that, it is always wonderful when people can find something to be passionate about, that speaks to them on a genuinely personal level.  Interviewed on The Today Show about the movie’s 40th anniversary, Sarandon stated…

“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that film helped them through a dark time.”

Also interviewed, Curry offered his thoughts on the movie…

“The thing that resonated for me more than anything was, ‘Don’t dream it, be it,’ which was a really good idea. Really good slogan.”

Here’s to the little movie that could.  If you have the opportunity, go see it at the late night double feature picture show.

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Remembering Murphy Anderson: a look back at The Atomic Knights

Silver Age comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on October 23rd at the age of 89. Anderson was an incredibly prolific inker who worked on numerous series for DC Comics from the 1950s thru to the 1980s. His embellishments wonderfully complemented the pencils of Curt Swan on Superman, Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Batman, and Gil Kane on Green Lantern and The Atom.

Less often Anderson also did both pencils & inks, turning in excellent work on Hawkman and The Spectre. He was the co-creator of the sci-fi hero Adam Strange and of the sexy magician Zatanna.

Anderson’s friend and colleague Todd Klein recently observed on his blog “I loved his precise style and crisp inking.” Reflecting on Anderson’s art in a tribute at 13th Dimension, Dave Gibbons commented “His inks brought a crispness and finesse to the work of so many great Silver Age artists. Stories always seemed to gain an extra magical dimension under his painstaking hand.”

Strange Adventures 144 cover

Among Anderson’s vast body of work, one of my personal favorites was the wonderfully weird Atomic Knights feature which he created with writer John Broome and editor Julius Schwartz in the Strange Adventures science fiction anthology series. The Atomic Knights made their debut in Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960) and appeared in every third issue of the series thru #156 (Sept 1963) with a final installment running in #160 (Jan 1964).

Set in the then-future year of 1986, the Atomic Knights stories by Broome & Anderson depicted the adventures of a group of heroes seeking to restore civilization to a post-apocalyptic world devastated by World War III. Oh, yes, and they happened to wear Medieval suits of armor and ride around on giant Dalmatians!

The first time I ever heard of the Atomic Knights was back in the early 1990s. My high school library had a copy of The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin.  One of the entries was on the Mole-Creatures.  It included a black & white image of the cover to Strange Adventures #144, which featured two of the armored Knights atop their giant Dalmatian steeds about to be ambushed by the Mole-Creatures.  The concept was just so far out and crazy that it immediately stuck in my mind.

DC reprinted the entire Atomic Knights run from Strange Adventures in a hardcover collection in 2010. Since acquiring all of those old issues would have been a difficult and expensive task, I picked up the book so that I could finally read this oddball series.

Atomic Knights collection cover

The story begins in late 1986, some weeks after the Great Atomic War has decimated nearly the entire globe. Wandering through the ruins of the town of Durvale, ex-soldier Gardner Grayle learns that the area is under the oppressive thumb of the self-proclaimed “Black Baron.”  Gardner befriends teacher Douglas Herald, and the pair discover six suits of armor in the remains of the Durvale Museum.  Somehow the energies of the nuclear war have transformed the metal, giving it radiation-resistant qualities.

Gardner and Douglas, along with Douglas’ sister Marene, the scientist Bryndon, and twins Wayne & Hollis Hobard, don the armor and attack the Black Baron’s fortress.  They capture the tyrant, liberating Durvale.  The armor-clad sextet decides to remain together as a group, “to represent law and order and the forces of justice in these terrible times.”

Throughout the course of the series, the Knights have a variety of unusual adventures. They explore the post-apocalyptic Earth, encountering a succession of bizarre monsters created by nuclear radiation, as well as human adversaries attempting to seize power.

Atomic Knights collection pg 35

It’s important to remember that these stories were published in the early 1960s. There are aspects that by today’s standards are dated.  The most obvious is how Marene, the only female Knight, is more often than not sidelined.  She is usually left in Durvale to care for another member of the Knights who has been wounded in battle, or to guard the town while the rest of the group goes out on a mission.  The apparent rational behind this is that Marene is “just a woman.”  At least she does finally have the opportunity to play a crucial role in the last story.

The character development of the heroes is minimal. We know that Gardner and Marene have a mutual attraction that they never seem to get around to taking to the next level, and that the Hobard brothers are huge fans of Jazz music, among other nuggets of information.  But mostly Broome is interested in just getting the characters from point A to point B, introducing the story’s menace and coming up with a resolution.

The science is also wonky. Radiation-resistant armor and dogs the size of horses is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scientific implausibility.  Then there’s Bryndon, one of those typical 1960s comic book scientists who apparently knows everything.  There doesn’t seem to be any area of science or technology of which he doesn’t possess at least some knowledge.  We eventually learn that he is literally a rocket scientist, but even so the guy is almost an encyclopedia on legs.

Perhaps the most blatant scientific unlikelihood is that all of the plant life on Earth was destroyed during World War III.  If that was the case, there wouldn’t be any plants to convert carbon dioxide back to oxygen, and humanity would have died out.  Fortunately our heroes soon find samples of fruits & vegetables on the lost island of Atlantis (yes, really) and are able to revive farming & agriculture in Durvale.

All kidding aside, writer John Broome was scripting these comic books to entertain young readers, not to meet a standard of inquiry from Scientific American. Given that fact, the dodgy science can more or less be excused, as these pulp sci-fi adventures are fun and delightfully offbeat.

It’s noteworthy that the Atomic Knights stories take place over a period of several years, with the final installments set in 1992. This enables Broome to show the gradual rebuilding of civilization.  That’s one of the more interesting aspects of the series, and it gives the stories a nice feeling of continuity.

Atomic Knights collection pg 45

The art by Murphy Anderson on the Atomic Knights stories is absolutely beautiful. I observed a quality to his work here that is reminiscent of some of the great newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 40s.  Gardner is heroically handsome & strong, Marene is beautiful & sweet, the villains are sneering fiends, and the monsters are bizarre, menacing beings.

Anderson admirably succeeds in illustrating the fantastic elements of these stories in such a way that they seem grounded in real life.   No matter how weird or impossible the monsters of the stories, Anderson gives them a weight and gravity, be they walking trees, electrical beings, or a giant crystal monster with a head that resembles a disco ball.

Anderson renders the spectacle of an armored knight riding a giant Dalmatian and makes it look perfectly plausible.  For example, on page 85 of the collection, we see the Knights astride the Dalmatians charging into battle.  The immense dogs kick up clouds of dust in their wake, their ears are flopping, and their tongues hang out of their mouths.  Anderson’s depiction of this scene makes it very easy to imagine the sounds of giant paws thundering across the ground, of the heavy pounding from the canines drawing in gasps of breath.

Atomic Knights collection pg 85

Between the offbeat writing of John Broome and the superb artwork of Murphy Anderson, the Atomic Knights was an engaging feature. It’s no wonder that it became something of a cult classic.  Although the series was written out of continuity for a time, later on the characters were brought back into the DC universe in various different forms.  Most recently the Atomic Knights were featured prominently in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes written by Stuart Moore.

That the Atomic Knights have fondly endured for all these decades in readers’ minds is undoubtedly at least partially due to Murphy Anderson’s stunning art. His work on the feature is, in my estimation, among the best he did in his lengthy and impressive career.  The Atomic Knights is but one of the many wonderful legacies that Murphy Anderson has left us.

Batman co-creator Bill Finger finally receives official recognition

If you have ever read any Batman comic books published by DC Comics, you will probably have noticed this credit: “Batman created by Bob Kane”

For 75 years the official position held by DC Comics and its predecessor National Comics was that Bob Kane was the sole creator of Batman.  This was a result of a contract signed between National and Kane after the Batman character made his debut.  The notion that Kane devised Batman on his own was one that Kane himself spent many years propagating.

What many Batman fans did not realize until the character had been in existence for well over half a century was that the Dark Knight was actually the co-creation of Kane and writer Bill Finger.  Finger suggested various key elements of Batman’s costume.  He created Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne and devised the origin of a young boy who witnessed his parents’ murders and swore to avenge their deaths by waging war on crime.  Finger co-created the Batmobile and the Bat-Cave, and is believed to have chosen the name “Gotham City” for Batman’s hometown.

Finger was also involved in creating many members of Batman’s supporting cast and rogue’s gallery, notably Commissioner Gordon, Robin, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Scarecrow, and the Riddler.  Batman’s arch nemesis the Joker was created by the three-way collaboration of Finger, Kane and artist Jerry Robinson.

Unfortunately, for decades Finger’s contributions were ignored or downplayed by DC Comics.  There were certain individuals, such as Paul Levitz and Denny O’Neil, who did wish to give Finger greater credit.  But they were hampered by DC’s contracts with Kane and, following his death in 1998, his estate.

That is, until this week, when the following appeared in the credits of the Batman books for the very first time…

Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger

“Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger”

For many years, every time I read an issue of Batman or Detective Comics or any other Bat-related book and I saw the old credit “Batman created by Bob Kane” I would mentally add “and Bill Finger” after it.  As with many other fans that over time learned about Finger’s key role in the creation of Batman, I hoped that one day he would receive official recognition for his contributions.  So I am definitely happy to see this come to pass.

It is true that I think that the new credit line really ought to read “Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.”  But considering that for decades it seemed an absolute impossibility that Finger would ever receive any credit, we have to be satisfied with this.

The story of Bill Finger is just one of many that should serve as a warning to all people working in creative fields.  It not only demonstrates the dangers of being shortchanged by Corporate America, but also the unfortunate possibility of being taken advantage of by a fellow creator who sees an opportunity to grab the lion’s share of credit and financial rewards at your expense.

Bill the Boy Wonder cover

Obviously there is a great deal more to what occurred between Bob Kane, Bill Finger and National / DC Comics.  I strongly recommend that those who are interested in the full story pick up a copy of the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Ty Templeton, which was published in 2012.  Nobleman is one of the people who in recent years has actively championed the cause of Finger finally receiving recognition for his contributions.

Templeton, who himself has worked on various Batman stories over the years, effectively (and humorously) demonstrated the importance of Bill Finger’s contributions to Batman via a comic strip he featured on his blog.  Appropriately enough, this is entitled “What if Bob Kane had created Bat-Man without Bill Finger?”

What if Batman by Ty Templeton

Yes, if it had not been for Bob Kane, there wouldn’t have been a superhero called “the Bat-Man.”  But without Bill Finger’s important contributions, that “Bat-Man” would have been very different, and it is doubtful that he would have become an incredibly popular, iconic figure who has endured for over three quarters of a century.

Finger was an incredibly inventive writer.  He also co-created the original Green Lantern with artist Mart Nodell and Wildcat with artist Irwin Hasen.  During his decades-long career Finger wrote many imaginative, memorable comic book stories.

Finger’s official recognition as Batman’s co-creator is long overdue.  He unfortunately passed away in 1974, before his role in Batman’s creation became widely known.  But I am happy that his granddaughter Athena Finger was able to see this achieved.

Doctor Who reviews: Under the Lake and Before the Flood

Here’s my overview of the second two-part storyline of Doctor Who Series Nine, “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O’Hara.  Once again, if you’re looking for a detailed synopsis, there’s always Wikipedia.  The numbered thoughts format worked well in my last Doctor Who review so I’m going with that again.

Under the Lake Radio times poster

1) A fate worse than death

Let’s face it: dying violently & unexpectedly sucks.  But there’s something worse than that, which is dying violently & unexpectedly and then coming back as something that’s neither alive nor dead.  That is a major reason why the zombie sub-genre is frightening; it’s not just the idea that if the zombies catch you that they’re going to kill you, but also that you are then going to be turned into one of them.

That’s pretty close to what happens in Whithouse’s story.  If you get killed, you then come back as a “ghost” with no will of your own, existing only for two purposes: to signal the Fisher King’s people to invade Earth, and to create more ghosts for that same purpose.  We’re never told how much sentience or intelligence, if any, remains of the victims after they die and come back.  But the mere possibility that you will spend the rest of eternity as a mindless, incorporeal wraith is undoubtedly horrifying.

It’s no wonder the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is utterly disgusted at the Fisher King’s actions…

“You robbed those people of their deaths. Made them nothing more than a message in a bottle. You violated something more important than time. You bent the rules of life and death. So I am putting things straight. Here, now, this is where your story ends.”

Capaldi does a superb job conveying both the Doctor’s moral outrage and his grim determination to thwart his adversary.

Under the Lake ghosts

2) Sometimes less is more

Back in April 2013 I compared “The Rings of Akhaten” to “Cold War.”  The former was ambitious, a special effects laden episode set on a far-off alien world.  Yet it was also a story that very much underwhelmed me.  The later was contained within the claustrophobic interior of a Soviet submarine, but was effectively written and directed, leaving me much impressed.

That comparison comes to mind again this year.  Series opener “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” had the spectacle of the Doctor facing Davros and an army of Daleks on a restored Skaro, but it was a very uneven story.  There were some great scenes, but also moments that were really weak, resulting in a story that was merely good.

In contrast, these two episodes are much more limited in scope.  Part one is set in a shadowy underwater base in the early 22nd Century.  Part two expands the action to a deserted Welsh village in 1980.  The special effects and make-up are rather minimal, limited to the ghosts, the Tivolian undertaker and the Fisher King.  Yet the writing, the acting, and the directing are all absolutely top-notch.  This two part entry is intelligent and suspenseful, both scaring the audience and really making them think.  And speaking of which…

3) Round and round we go

The bootstrap paradox, aka stable time loop, is an intellectually perplexing aspect of time travel, as well an incredibly unnerving one.  The idea of an event existing without a prima causa, but rather as an endless Mobius strip running back & forth though time is definitely the sort of thing that can make your head hurt.

It is also disturbing because it seems to completely nullify the concept of free will.  In a bootstrap paradox, your actions are apparently totally pre-determined.  That is a frightening concept, the idea that no matter what you do, whatever choices you make, they are inevitably going to lead to a single outcome that cannot be altered.

Doctor Who has utilized the bootstrap paradox previously, most notably in “Blink.”  A variation of it appeared as far back as the 1972 serial “Day of the Daleks,” although in that story it’s implied that the Daleks initially altered history, and a failed attempt to undo their changes led to the temporal paradox.

Outside of Doctor Who, the excellent novel The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers contains one of the most interesting utilizations of the bootstrap paradox.  Also noteworthy is the very unsettling comic book story “Counter-Clockwise” by Bill Elder & John Severin from Weird Fantasy #18 (March/April 1953).  I find myself wondering if that tale was an influence on the Doctor Who novel Vanderdeken’s Children (1998) by Christopher Bulis.

Before the Flood Clara

4) Clara Oswald: action junkie

Last season in “Mummy on the Orient Express” Clara (Jenna Coleman) asked the Doctor if he was addicted to traveling through time & space, and to making life & death decisions.  If he is, then it appears Clara herself also now suffers from that ailment.  As “Under the Lake” opens she is chomping at the bit, eager for the TARDIS to land somewhere new & exciting.

Clara also once again, much as she previously did in “Flatline,” finds herself stepping into the role of the Doctor, taking charge and nudging, almost manipulating, the actions of others.  And, whereas previously Clara found herself angry that the Doctor had made her an “accomplice,” here it is almost second nature.  If Clara is a positive influence on the Doctor, making him a better person, well, certainly the Doctor seems to sometimes be a negative one on Clara herself.

And, just as certain people are understandably resentful of the Doctor’s machinations, so too do they not take kindly to Clara’s.  As Cass inquires through Lunn…

“She said to ask you whether traveling with the Doctor has changed you, and why you always have to put other people’s lives at risk.”

I wonder if Clara is embracing the Doctor’s travels and lifestyle so whole-heartedly because she is attempting to fill the void left by Danny’s death.  Perhaps this is going to be an ongoing subplot through the year.  We know now that Coleman is leaving the show soon, so inevitably there is going to have to be some form of closure for Clara’s character.

5) It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever

In his various incarnations the Doctor has always walked a tightrope between a wise, caring guardian and an arrogant, obtuse meddler.  That is especially true of Capaldi’s portrayal of the Twelfth Doctor.  He is an individual concerned with safeguarding the innocent and combating injustice, yet he is frequently cold and dismissive towards those he is supposedly protecting.

The idea that Clara has the Doctor carry around cards with sympathetic expressions for him to read aloud because he is too self-absorbed and alien to see how much he is upsetting people is both brilliant and all too on-the-mark.  On a more serious note, yes, it does seem that the Doctor made only a token effort to save O’Donnell, and he was actually curious to see if she would be the next to die.  He obviously cares a great deal more about Clara since he was seemingly ready to break the laws of time to save her life.  The Doctor can be maddeningly inconsistent… but, then again, so can most of us.

The Fisher King

6) Fishing for compliments

The design of the Fisher King was really good, making him a menacing figure.  The voice was also well done.  The Fisher King was more effective in the scenes set indoors when he was kept somewhat in shadows.  Later, when we see him outside in daylight, he is not nearly as impressive, but still works pretty well.

Having said all that, considering how damn tall the Fisher King was, how exactly did he plan on fitting into that stasis chamber?

7) One final note

Once again the Doctor plays the electric guitar, this time performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in the pre-credit sequence to “Before the Flood.”  Is it a little self-indulgent to let Capaldi play the guitar two stories in a row?  Possibly.  But I enjoyed it.  As Jim O’Brien astutely observed in the comments section last time…

“While over the top, one of the things I like about Capaldi’s depiction of the character is he can pull off things that might come off as a bit too “twee” or camp if it were say, Matt Smith, or maybe even Tennant doing them. That stern gravitas Capaldi conveys makes the comedic stuff even funnier for me.”

Crap!  I wish I’d been able to articulate my thoughts that well.  Anyway, my point is that much of the time Capaldi is brooding or rude or angry.  So when he then does something completely outrageous like, say, playing the electric guitar, the juxtaposition to his usual intense attitude makes it even more amusing and entertaining.  It’s yet another reason why I am so enjoying Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor.

Star Wars reviews: Jedi Aayla Secura

I’m continuing the countdown to the debut of The Force Awakens in December with another look at entries in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today’s post spotlights Star Wars: Jedi – Aayla Secura published by Dark Horse in August 2003.  It was written by John Ostrander, drawn by Jan Duursema & Dan Parsons, and colored by Brad Anderson.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura cover signed

Several months have passed since the Battle of Geonosis.  The Clone Wars, the war between the Republic and the Confederacy, has spread throughout the entire galaxy.  Republic supply convoys are being ambushed in space by Confederacy raiders.  The Jedi T’ra Saa receives a holocomm message from Senator Elsah Sai Moro from the planet Devaron.  Elsah informs T’ra that the raiders are operating from Devaron and are being assisted by a member of the government.  Before the Senator can name the culprit, she is assassinated on-camera.

Soon after a trio of Jedi arrive on Devaron undercover: Aayla Secura, Tholme, and the mysterious Dark Woman.  Unfortunately the Dark Woman is recognized by Elsah’s killer, Aurra Sing.  Years before, the Dark Woman was Aurra’s teacher, but the young Jedi-in-training was kidnapped by space pirates, and she turned to the Dark Side.  Now a bounty hunter and assassin, Aurra hates the Jedi with a burning passion.  Aurra informs her employer, Senator Sai’Malloc, that the three visitors to Devaron are Jedi and that she intends to kill them.

Sai’Malloc does not want more murders on her hands and reluctantly admits her collaboration to Aayla.  By this time, however, Tholme and the Dark Woman have already fallen into a trap laid by Aurra.  To save her fellow Jedi, Aayla is forced to fight the deadly bounty hunter.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 8

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite writers on the Star Wars comic books from Dark Horse was John Ostrander.  The penciler he most frequently worked with on these stories was Jan Duursema.  Having previously penciled issue #92 of the original Marvel Comics series in late 1984, Duursema became a regular contributor to the Dark Horse titles a decade and a half later, making her one of only a handful of creators to have worked on both SW runs.

Ostrander and Duursema were quickly paired up at Dark Horse and became an effective team.  One of their first collaborations was “Twilight” in Star Wars #19-22.  It introduced Quinlan Vos, an amnesiac Jedi tempted by the Dark Side, and his Twi’lek apprentice Aayla Secura.  Over the next several years Ostrander & Duursema did excellent work developing the characters of Quinlan and Aayla, as well as the brooding Tholme and the beautiful tree-like T’ra Saa.  Ostrander & Duursema examined the upheavals all four experienced as the Jedi were drawn into the conflicts and politics of the Clone Wars.

One of the threads Ostrander & Duursema wove in and out of the Republic monthly and the Jedi quarterly book was Quin’s continuing struggle with the temptations of the Dark Side.  By the time of Jedi – Aayla Secura, Quin had apparently defected to the Confederacy, falling under the sway of Count Dooku.  In fact Quin was working deep undercover as a double agent, so deep in fact that the handful of Jedi who knew the truth, as well as the readers, were constantly left questioning if Quin really had gone bad.

Quin had previously saved Aayla from becoming a pawn to a Dark Jedi, and she now wishes to go after her old teacher to return the favor.  Tholme, one of few to know the truth of Quin’s scheme, forbids it.  Consequently throughout this issue Aayla finds her memories returning to her past instruction by Quin, and the bond of friendship they shared.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 25

Ostrander compares and contrasts Aayla Secura and Aurra Sing.  Both of them were kidnapped and subsequently tempted by the Dark Side while they were still Padawan learners.  Quinlan refused to give up on his pupil, pursuing Aayla across the galaxy to locate her and bring her back to the light.  On the other hand, Aurra’s teacher was the Dark Woman, who was so fanatical about observing the Jedi’s code of avoiding attachments that she even gave up her real name.  When Aurra was abducted, the Dark Woman simply resigned herself to her student’s loss since she never allowed herself to develop any sort of emotional attachment to her.  Aurra’s subsequent corruption, her transformation into a sadistic killer-for-hire, is at least partially due to the Dark Woman’s negligence.

An interesting bit of characterization by Ostrander is Senator Sai’Malloc.  Like many politicians, she is not genuinely evil, merely weak and greedy.  She had only intended to line her pockets with Confederacy money, and to gain favor with them, so that if they emerged as the victors of the War she would be in a position to use them as allies.  But as Sai’Malloc’s involvement with the Confederacy grew, her crimes snowballed out of control.  Eventually, in order to keep her role a secret, she resorts to murder.  It is a very believable, realistic depiction of how corruption gradually eats away at a person.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 29

The pencils by Duursema are incredible.  She draws some amazing action sequences.  The fight between Aayla and Aurra is absolutely dynamic, a ballet of violence.  Duursema also excels at the quieter scenes of characterization.  The flashbacks to young Aayla being taught by and developing a friendship with Quinlan are very effective.

I really like Dan Parsons inking Duursema’s pencils.  They began working together with Republic #50 and have been an art team ever since.  I had previously enjoyed Parsons’ work writing & drawing his creator-owned series Aetos the Eagle and Harpy.  His detailed inking has a very dark tone to it, simultaneously very slick & polished and rough & gritty.  Parsons’ early art reminded me somewhat of Michael Bair.  Parsons’ inking gave Duursema’s pencils an atmosphere that was appropriate for the grim, moody tales of war and espionage that Ostrander was writing in the Star Wars comics.

The coloring by Brad Anderson is also very effective.  It is vibrant yet subdued, somber when necessary without becoming muddy.  Again, it works well at creating an atmosphere in these stories.

Aayla Secura Attack of the Clones

Aayla Secura has the distinction of originating in the Expanded Universe and then appearing in the actual movies.  George Lucas, while he was in the middle of making Attack of the Clones, saw Dark Horse artwork featuring Aayla and, struck by her appearance, added her to the movie.  She was portrayed by ILM production assistant and actress Amy Allen.

Aayla subsequently appeared in Revenge of the Sith where she was one of the numerous Jedi killed by the Clone Troopers during Order 66.  Between the comic books by Ostrander & Duursema and the movies, Aayla had definitely became a fan favorite, and many, myself included, were upset at her demise.

I wonder if Aayla’s popularity and the reaction to her death helped inspire Lucas to create Ahsoka Tano, another female teenage alien Jedi.  She also became popular among Star Wars fans and, unlike Aayla, survived the events of the Clone Wars.

The majority of the Dark Horse material is apparently now non-canonical, but don’t let that dissuade you.  If you cannot find this one via back issues or the now out-of-print trade paperbacks, I’m sure that Disney-owned Marvel will eventually be repackaging it.  All of the issues by Ostrander & Duursema are well worth reading.  They are among the best entries in the entire Expanded Universe.

This review is dedicated to Jan Duursema’s daughter Sian, who convinced John Ostrander not to kill off Aayla at the end of “Twilight,” therefore leading to many more wonderful stories featuring the character.

New York Comic Con 2015

I was originally not planning to go to New York Comic Con this year.  Then about a week before the show my old friend Mitchell Lampert contacted me to let me know he had two extra tickets for Sunday.  Thanks to Mitchell’s very kind and generous gift, my girlfriend Michele and I were able to attend the show.

As usual, I was on a limited budget, although I did manage to raise a little extra money at the last minute.  Even so, seeing all of the amazing creators who had tables in Artists Alley, I did wish that I could have afforded a few more sketches.  Well, there’s always the future.

Erik Larsen NYCC 2015

When we arrived at the Javits Center on Sunday morning, I immediately headed over to Erik Larsen’s table in Artists Alley.  Larsen is the creator of Savage Dragon from Image Comics.  I’ve been following it from the very beginning, over two decades ago, and for the last few years it has been my favorite ongoing series.  Larsen has been a guest at NYCC several times before, but somehow I’ve always missed him.  I did meet him quite a few years ago, but he had a long line then, so I really did not have the opportunity to talk with him.

Fortunately on Sunday, while there was steady traffic at Larsen’s table, it never got very crowded, and so I was able to spend a few minutes talking to him, asking him questions and telling him how much I enjoyed his work.  Larsen is definitely a friendly, cool guy.

I was able to obtain a couple of sketches by Larsen.  He did a quick free sketch of Malcolm Dragon, and then I paid for him to do a detailed Beautiful Dreamer in my theme sketchbook. Larsen is a huge fan of Jack Kirby, so for a while now I’d hoped to have him contribute to the sketchbook.  I’m happy I finally had the opportunity.

Russ Braun NYCC 2015

Next I headed over to see Russ Braun, a very talented artist who has worked on such series as Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Battlefields, The Boys and Where Monsters Dwell.  I met Russ at a signing at JHU Comic Books a few months ago, where he did a nice drawing of Beautiful Dreamer for me.  Since then we’ve corresponded on Facebook.  Russ is definitely a class act, one of the nicest comic book pros I’ve ever met.  It’s always a pleasure to see the new artwork he’s posting on FB.

I picked up a copy of Russ’ 2015 NYCC Sketchbook, which contains some amazing illustrations.  A lot of these are pieces he’s shared on Facebook in the last few months, and it was nice to see them complied together.  Russ drew a sketch for me in my Avengers Assemble book.  He drew a pretty obscure character named Masque, who you might recall if you were reading the Avengers comics in the mid-1990s.  I will be the first to admit that “The Crossing” storyline was a huge mess.  However, there were certain characters and elements to it that I thought had potential, and Masque was one of those.  Anyway, Russ did a great job sketching the character.

Sovereign Seven original artwork

I was pleasantly surprised to meet Christopher Ivy, an artist I know from Facebook.  He is an extremely prolific inker who has been working in comic books since 1988.  Ivy had some original pages for sale.  I was just browsing through them out of curiosity when I came across one of his pages from Sovereign Seven penciled by Dwayne Turner.  As I’ve written before, S7 was an interesting series.  This one leaped out at me because of the beautiful drawing of Lucy the cat by Turner & Ivy.

Yes, as regular readers of this blog will know, I am definitely a huge cat lover.  So I immediately knew that I had to buy this page.  Fortunately it fell within my budget.  Michele thought it was a nice page, as well.

Chris Claremont NYCC 2015

Chris Claremont, the writer of Sovereign Seven, had a table in Artists Alley.  I brought the page over to get his autograph.  Claremont was pleasantly surprised by this, and he appeared genuinely happy to see it.  I always thought the series had a great deal of potential.  Even though it was published by DC Comics, the characters were owned by Claremont.  I told him that I would enjoy seeing him write them again, if not in comic books then perhaps in a prose novel.  I get the feeling that given the opportunity Claremont would like to revisit his creations.

I spent most of the day in Artists Alley, mostly because it looked like the main floor was very crowded.  Around 3:00 Michele and I decided to give it a try.  And, yep, it was completely packed!  It was almost impossible to move in places.  I felt like we were on the NYC subway during rush hour.

After elbowing out way through the crowd and making our way from one end of the floor to another, we finally arrived at the Action Labs booth.  Unfortunately by that time the creators of the Hero Cats series had left for the day.  Well, maybe next year!

Paris Cullins NYCC 2015

Inching our way back the other was, Michele and I came to the Papercutz booth.  Paris Cullins was there to promote The Zodiac Legacy, the new series he’s working on with writer Stuart Moore.  Cullins asked if I would like a sketch.  He then proceeded to draw Michele and myself!  I think that I look sort of weird, but the drawing of Michele was of course beautiful.  It was a very nice gesture on Cullins’ part.

I met a number of other creators at NYCC.  Among them were Joe Staton, Bret Blevins, Jan Duursema, Tom Mandrake, Joyce Chin, Mike Lilly, Bob McLeod, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Joe Prado, Fernando Ruiz, Jamal Igle, Jim Chambers and Joe Martino.  I hope I’m not forgetting anyone.

There were, of course, some really amazing cosplayers at NYCC.  Michele took a whole bunch of pictures.  Here are a few of my favorites…

Sabine Wren from Star Wars: Rebels

Sabine Wren from Star Wars: Rebels

The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer

Hot Pepper

Hot Pepper

Doctor Strange and Zatanna

Doctor Strange and Zatanna

Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham

Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham

I really admire many of these cosplayers.  They obviously possess a great deal of talent to be able to create such amazing costumes, as well as the self-confidence to wear them at huge gatherings of fandom.

I’m happy that Michele and I were able to go to New York Comic Con this year.  It was fun.  At the same time, I’m glad that I only went one day.  Any more than that and I would have been completely worn out!

Doctor Who reviews: The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar

The two-part debut of Doctor Who Series Nine, “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” written by Steven Moffat aired a few weeks back.  I’ve been so busy with stuff that I haven’t had an opportunity to comment on them.  But, by popular demand (well, okay, one person requested it… hello, Jim O’Brien!) here are my thoughts.

Looking at my past Doctor Who reviews, they’ve run long.  So this doesn’t go on forever, I’m not recapping the plot.  If you need to have your memory jogged, you can read the synopsis on Wikipedia.

Also, to make things organized, I’m numbering my thoughts.  Other bloggers on WordPress do that, and it can be effective.  So here goes…

Doctor Who The Magicians Apprentice

1) Let’s Kill Hitler?

This story offers a variation of the question of “Would you go back in time to kill Hitler as a child?”  The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) lands on a planet embroiled in a horrific war.  He sees a young child trapped in a mine field and is ready to save him… until he learns that it is Davros, who will grow up to destroy his own people, the Kaleds, and create the Daleks, the most evil life form in the universe.

The Doctor is appalled.  At first he just departs from ancient Skaro, leaving young Davros still trapped among the mines.  Clara (Jenna Coleman) later realizes the Doctor is full of shame, but it is not specified over what.  Is he ashamed that he did not have the fortitude to kill Davros in the past, before he grew up to become a monster?  Or is the Doctor ashamed that he abandoned an innocent child like that?  Maybe it is both.  Maybe the Doctor is so torn by this that he does not know how to feel.

Of course, later the Doctor does return to Skaro thousands of years ago to rescue young Davros.  The Doctor hopes this act of mercy will remain in his subconscious so that, in the future, when Clara is trapped inside a Dalek shell, the concept of mercy will be something she can access among the Dalek programming to alert the Doctor that it is her.

2) The Third Path

Thinking over the moral dilemma faced by the Doctor, to kill young Davros or save him, a third alternative eventually occurred to me.  To a certain degree, Davros is very much the product of his upbringing.  He was raised in a fascist society obsessed with genetic purity that was locked in a centuries-long war.  What about removing him from that environment?  Why not take the young Davros aboard the TARDIS and find a peaceful world where he could be adopted by loving parents?  That would give him an opportunity to grow up in a much better place, to hopefully develop in a positive manner.  The Doctor would have changed history, averted the creation of the Daleks, without having to kill a child who had not yet committed any crimes.

Missy The Magicians Apprentice

3) Hey Missy, You So Fine

Despite her apparent demise at the end of “Death In Heaven” Missy (Michelle Gomez) is back.  Hey, the Master / Missy has always been brilliant at improbably escaping certain death.  It’s actually a neat twist that we learn Missy stole the method of her escape from the Doctor.  She is so obsessed with the Doctor that she would crib his methods for herself.

It does make a certain sense for Missy to be a recurring adversary for the Twelfth Doctor.  Capaldi was a huge fan of Doctor Who when Jon Pertwee was portraying the Third Doctor.  It’s apparent that Capaldi has incorporated some of the Third Doctor’s mannerisms and personality into his own interpretation of the role.  Back then, the Master was a regular fixture on the series, so it is appropriate for the two of them to once again have an ongoing rivalry.  As long as Missy is not overused (i.e. showing up in every story in a season) there isn’t a problem with her popping up now and again.

In any case, as written by Moffat and played by Gomez, Missy is brilliantly scary.  She is terrifying because you never know what she is going to do next.  When she walks into a room, you don’t know if she is going to start murdering people or do something wacky like singing show tunes.  And if Missy does break out into song, just when you allow yourself to relax, suddenly she’ll whip out a weapon, casually murder some poor innocent, and then resume her recitation of Rodgers & Hammerstein without missing a beat.  That sort of capricious evil means that whenever she’s on the screen the viewer is on edge.  It’s sort of like having to share a room with a venomous snake.

4) Here come the Daleks… again

Yet another Dalek story already?  They feel overused at this point.  I wish we could have a season without them showing up.

That might be out of the hands of Moffat, though.  Reportedly the arrangement that the BBC has with Terry Nation’s estate is that Doctor Who is required to have the Daleks appear at least once a year in order to retain the use of them.  That would explain why in the two years that there weren’t any Dalek stories there were brief cameos made by them.

If this is the case, well, having fulfilled the Dalek quota for 2015, I hope that we will not see them again until next year.  Even seeing Skaro restored to its classic appearance, with various old incarnations of the Daleks showing up, left me a bit underwhelmed.

Davros The Magicians Apprentice

5) Davros is a bastard

Julian Bleach, who played Davros in “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” reprises the role here.  He has a very good handle on the character.  Davros is at his most effective when the screaming and ranting is kept to a minimum.  As I observed in my review of the Big Finish audio story “Davros,” the most dangerous thing about the character is that he is so incredibly manipulative & charismatic, so brilliant at getting people to underestimate him.  Davros is also very insightful, and he really knows how to get under the Doctor’s skin, point out his weaknesses and failings.

Moffat’s dialogue for the Twelfth Doctor and Davros is very dramatic.  Capaldi and Bleach play these scenes brilliantly.  It was riveting just watching these two adversaries conversing.

6) UNIT is useless

One of the problems I had with UNIT when they were regulars on the show in the 1970s was that they were often depicted as incompetent.  That trend has unfortunately repeated itself with Moffat’s use of the organization.  They show up to provide some exposition, a bunch of their personnel get killed, and then the Doctor steps in to save the day.

I’m not sure why you would get Jemma Redgrave to play Kate Stewart, and then write her as an ineffectual idiot.  In “The Magician’s Apprentice,” when every airplane on earth becomes frozen in place, what does Kate, a scientist who heads a multi-national military & intelligence group, do?  Does she consult with her staff and attempt to devise a solution on her own?  No, she calls the Doctor for help.  And when Kate cannot get hold of him, she brings in Clara.  It’s really embarrassing to see a civilian schoolteacher start suggesting possibilities that hadn’t occurred to a single person in UNIT.

Worse yet, when Clara goes to meet Missy, UNIT has no plan for dealing with her.  When Missy begins disintegrating UNIT personnel just to amuse herself, they have no idea how to react, and Kate is left shouting “Don’t shoot her!”  Yeah, that’s great, just stand there and let Missy murder you.  Brilliant plan!

More than ever, I am happy that Redgrave will be playing Kate Stewart in a series of Big Finish audios.  I really hope that when presented in stories that do not feature the Doctor hanging around to save the day, Kate and UNIT will have an opportunity to actually accomplish something.

7) What’s in a name?

I’m left wondering what the meaning is of the episode titles.  I am guessing that the Magician is the Doctor and the Witch is Missy.  Clara is probably both the Apprentice and the Familiar.  I wonder if these are just clever titles that Moffat devised, or if they have a significance that will become apparent as the season progresses.

8) Colony Sarff

Davros’ henchman, Colony Sarff, is a collective entity made up of hundreds of snakes.  He is wonderfully creepy.  He is just the sort of thing you can imagine coming out of Davros’ twisted mind.  Sarff reminded me a bit of the weird entities devised by Grant Morrison & Richard Case during their classic run on the Doom Patrol comic book.

The “hand mines” on Skaro were also reminiscent of the bizarre quality of that series.  I wonder if Moffat has read Morrison?

Peter Capaldi plays guitar

9) The Doctor plays the electric guitar

Seeing the Doctor playing an electric guitar atop a tank in Medieval England was one of my favorite parts of “The Magician’s Apprentice.”  Even more so now that I know that Capaldi himself was actually playing it.  One of the ways that Tom Baker stated he liked to portray the Doctor was to act serious in silly situations and silly in serious situations.  Capaldi also has that sort of quality about him.

That’s one of the things that I love about Doctor Who; it’s definitely not afraid to be silly from time to time.  At its best, the series has always possessed a healthy balance of the serious and the ridiculous.  Speaking of which…

10) Vampire Monkeys

Maybe it would not be something that would be enough to fill out an entire episode.  In fact, perhaps it is an idea better left as an offhand comment by Missy about an untold adventure of the Doctor.  But I really have to smile at the idea of the Doctor facing a horde of vampire monkeys.

That’s my take on this two part story.  While I didn’t think it was an overwhelming success, and there were definite weak points, for the most part I liked it.