The myth of the fake geek girl

The last few months on the Internet, one of the more interesting, as well as controversial, debates has revolved around the notion of “fake geek girls.”  One of the major aspects of this has concerned the phenomenon of attractive women cosplaying as sexy female comic book characters at comic book conventions.  There has been a lot of back-and-forth about whether or not these ladies are “real” fans.  I’ve had some general thoughts about this percolating in my mind for a while now, but I didn’t really take the time to organize them into any coherent form.

Then a few days ago on Facebook, someone posted a rather humorous image. Someone had created a meme featuring a girl cosplaying as “steampunk gender swapped Joker in a Willy Wonka hat,” stating that this lady was “trying too hard.”  Right next to it was a screen capture from a message board where someone else astutely pointed out that this gal was portraying an actual comic book character, Duela Dent, and that the next time someone accused someone else of being a “fake geek” they ought to do their research first.

Open mouth, insert foot.
Open mouth, insert foot.

I think my initial reaction to this was along the lines of “Oh, shit, the guy who created that first meme got totally pwned! Ha ha!”

(Credit where credit is due department: I just learned that the responses on the right, and the final image epically putting down the ill-informed douche who created the original meme, were assembled by Lizzie Taz Scism, a cosplayer herself and a friend of the lady who was garbed as Duela Dent.)

So I was at my temp job today, doing a whole bunch of data entry.  My mind began wandering, and it somehow conjured up the memory of the above image.  This started a whole row of mental dominos tumbling for the next couple of hours, leading to this blog post.

Please keep in mind, in addressing the “fake geek girl” controversy, I really do not want to make any sort of sweeping generalizations concerning any aspects of fandom.  That is why, as with my other recent post, Old vs new: fan wars and Doctor Who, I am attempting to frame this solely from my own individual perspective and experiences.  I think a lot of people have been dancing around a certain aspect of the reason why these accusations occur, so I’m just going to come right out and confront it head on.  If I offend anyone, I really do apologize.

When I was growing up, I was painfully shy and socially awkward.  I had few friends and mostly kept to myself.  When I wasn’t busy reading science fiction novels or comic books like Captain America, Batman, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was watching reruns of Doctor Who and Star Trek, plus innumerable cartoons.  I had a hell of a lot of action figures.  In other words, I was a major geek.  And the other kids at school knew it.  Throughout most of my public school years, I was taunted on a daily basis, repeatedly called a “nerd.”  I was fortunate enough to avoid getting beat up most of the time.  But, as some people observe, words can be just as painful as physical blows.  And a few times in high school I did get punched in the face.  Once, someone even hit me in the head with a football during gym class.

Significantly to my young self, a great deal of the taunting and mockery seemed to come from the girls in school.  I don’t know, maybe it was my young imagination, but practically every single girl I went to school with seemed to find it especially enjoyable to torment me with those mocking cries of “nerd.”  And when I hesitantly attempted to befriend any of those girls, or even tell them that I thought they were pretty, well, that just encouraged them to redouble their efforts to make my school life unbearable.

By the time I was in high school, it appeared to me that most of the popular guys were the ones who played school sports, or who were in the band or orchestra.  And they were also the guys who always seemed to be going out with one cute girl or another.  I couldn’t think of a single kid I knew who was into stuff like sci-fi or comic books and who had a girlfriend.  The girls seemed to automatically gravitate to the jocks or the musicians.

In my college years and my twenties, I began to gradually come out of my shell.  Even so, I really did not date much.  Most women still seemed to be attracted to the athletic type, or guys who were in bands, or just plain “bad boys.”  I did befriend a few comic book artists who I ran into regularly at NYC comic cons.  Hanging out with those guys at parties and bars, I did notice that a lot of women did think that it was really awesome and cool if a guy was an artist who made their living drawing comic books.  But if you actually read the damn things, well, the ladies still found that pretty unappealing.

Next person to say I'm not a real fan gets decapitated!
Next person to say I’m not a real fan gets decapitated!

So, yeah, in the last several years, when I’ve started to see female cosplayers become more and more prevalent, attractive women dressing up in sexy superhero costumes, there is a part of me that cannot help thinking “What the fuck is going on?!?”  I mean, it seemed like every single cute girl in school made it their mission to inflict as much misery upon me on a daily basis, and that they found guys like me completely unappealing.  So what the hell were all these women now doing hanging out with all those “nerds” and “geeks” that they had derided years before in their teenage years?  Why were they at comic book conventions dressed up as Wonder Woman and Power Girl and Black Widow and Witchblade, when based on all the evidence of my experiences they ought to be on the arm of some jock at a football game, or swooning while their hard-living musician boyfriends belted out tunes on the stage of a trendy nightclub?  And there’s inevitably that extremely paranoid, neurotic, irrational part of my thinking that ends up concluding that the reason why these women are cosplaying as sexy superhero babes is for some sort of ulterior purpose.

I am sure some of you are wondering, what sort of underhanded motives could possibly cause a woman to dress up in a revealing, skin-tight spandex outfit?  Well, let me put it this way: there are a lot of comic book and sci-fi fans who have a lot of money.  I used to work in downtown Manhattan.  There was this one comic shop that was literally two blocks away from Wall Street. And every Wednesday, aka “new comic book day,” at noon, like clockwork, a whole bunch of businessmen & stockbrokers would come flooding in and spend a ton of money.  Even more telling, many people I know in the original comic art hobby will regularly drop several thousand dollars on a single piece of artwork.

Let us say, then, that you had a childhood similar to mine, full of awkwardness & insecurity, marked by a lack of friends, especially female friends.  And from all of your experiences in the past, it seemed like every girl you came across regarded comic books and sci-fi as things only a loser would be interested in.  Now you are an adult, still a fan of those same things, and suddenly there are all these hot babes parading around in sexy, revealing outfits at comic book conventions.  Perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to wonder if maybe some of these women are in fact “fake geek girls” who are looking to sink their claws into a well-off, socially inexperienced guy and milk him for all he’s worth.  It is probably not a logical reaction.  Hell, as I said, it veers dangerously into paranoia.  But from a certain perspective it makes sense that some guys are afraid of this.

Even after all this time, I still haven’t overcome a lot of these types of fears.  I mean, I’ve been in a relationship with Michele for five years now, and a lot of the time I cannot help thinking to myself “What the hell does she see in me?”  I mean, she’s attractive, outgoing, funny, intelligent and clever.  She’s also a talented artist who has been published nationally.  Guys seem to flirt with her all the time.  She could probably have anyone she wants.  And I’m a depressed, moody, neurotic, short-tempered geek who suffers from mood swings who spends half the time either acting like a crab-ass or isolating from people.  So why is she still with me?

Pondering all of this, I have to conclude that two major factors come into play (and, yes, here I am going to risk engaging in generalizations).  The first is that that, after all these years, many adult comic book fans, myself included, still suffer from insecurities that linger from their childhood.  Sometimes those traumas aren’t easily overcome.

The second is a fear of female sexuality.  Let’s face it, not just comic book fans, but the majority of men, at one time or another, have done their thinking with their crotch and not their brains.  Men can do extremely stupid things when motivated by lust.  And so there are plenty of men (again, not just limited to geeks) who worry that a sexy woman is going to take advantage of that and use their eroticism to control them.

On that later point, I think that ties in with society’s misogynist desire to sexualize women yet, at the same time, control them, turn them into non-threatening objects.  But that’s opening a whole other can of worms, and you could write entire books on that subject.

Anyone who accuses Harley Quinn of being a
Anyone who accuses Harley Quinn of being a “fake geek girl” gets a mallet upside the head!

You may well ask where the hell I am going with all this.  Well, my point is that, growing up, many of our peers, because of their narrow-minded views & biases, prejudged and labeled us, put us down as unworthy of their respect.  I believe that when we as adult comic book fans allow the baggage of our pasts to influence our perspectives, to judge a wide swath of female fans as “fake geek girls,” we are doing the exact same thing that was previously done to us.  I realize now that just because you didn’t happen to go to school with any girls who were into comics or sci-fi doesn’t mean that they weren’t out there.

Fandom is full of diversity.  It is made up of an entire spectrum of fans that enjoy many different things.  It is a mistake to offhandedly dismiss any one of those groups simply because of our own preconceptions.  And, yeah, that includes female cosplayers!

UPDATE:  Here is a link to an extremely intelligent article by Laurie Penny of New Statesman that actually addresses some of what I wrote about above.

http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/on-nerd-entitlement-rebel-alliance-empire

I wish I had been able to read this a year and a half ago when I first wrote this post.  Perhaps then I would not have made assumptions that had little to no basis in reality, and would have had a better understanding of an alternate perspective on this issue.  But I guess that is the important thing, that you learn from your experiences & mistakes and going forward don’t repeat them.

Roswell 66

Today is the 66th anniversary of the infamous Roswell UFO Incident.  Apparently on July 8, 1947 something came crashing down in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico.  I say “something” but a lot of people believe that it was an alien spacecraft.  Since then, the military have repeatedly insisted that it was an experimental high-altitude surveillance balloon.  But many people refuse to believe that, and to this day, there is this widespread belief that the government has a flying saucer stashed away in Area 51.

area51

To be perfectly honest, I actually believe the government in this case.  Why, you may ask?  Well, most people have come to expect that the government is going to lie.  If the military wants to cover up some sort of experimental surveillance device that was being used to spy on the Soviet Union or maybe even on actual Americans, just come out and say that that’s what it was.  Because so many people are going to assume that the government is lying, and believe it was actually a spaceship.  And the more the government insists that, no, it really truly was a hi-tech balloon, the more people are going to dig in their heels, stamp their feet, and argue that it must have been a flying saucer.  It’s so beautiful in its simplicity: tell the truth to get people to believe a lie.

I think the government has so many better things to cover up than the existence of extraterrestrial life.  War profiteering in Iraq and Afghanistan, un-Constitutional surveillance of American citizens, indefinitely detaining suspects without trial, corporations buying politicians to pass laws making big business immune from prosecution & lawsuits, tax cuts for the wealthy while social programs for the poor are gutted; all of this are the things that we should be paying attention to.  But instead, the conspiracy-minded are running around harping about how a freaking UFO crash-landed six and a half decades ago.

(*Huff puff!* Okay, I promise to get down from my soapbox now.)

Oh, well, on the bright side, the whole Roswell Affair has supplied genre fiction with more than sixty years of raw material for churning out tales of alien invasions and government conspiracies.  If you don’t take this stuff too seriously, it can be very entertaining.  You have everything from Independence Day and The X-Files to Lilo & Stitch and Coneheads.  And that Google Doodle game where you play a crash-landed alien trying to re-assemble his flying saucer is pretty darn cute!  Just don’t spend too much of your spare time rooting around the deserts of the Southwest searching for little grey men from outer space.

Memories of Ray Harryhausen

Another childhood hero gone.  I just found out that legendary special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation, passed away on May 7th at the age of 92.

The first film I ever saw which Harryhausen worked on was actually his last one, Clash of the Titans.  I was six years old in 1981.  When Clash of the Titans came into the theaters, it totally blew me away.  I kept asking my father to take me back to see it again.  I must have seen it in the theater at least half a dozen times.

Since I was just a kid, I didn’t pay any attention to the film’s credits.  So the first time I found out about Harryhausen was several years later, in 1988.  The science fiction magazine Starlog printed an extensive interview with him, complete with numerous photos from his various films.  I realized that not only had Harryhausen done the special effects for Clash of the Titans, he had also worked on numerous other sci-fi and fantasy films over the decades.  Some of these I had seen on television, such as Mighty Joe Young, which he worked on in 1947 as an assistant to stop motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, as well as some of his later solo efforts, namely Mysterious Island (1961) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

That article in Starlog pointed the way to many of Harryhausen’s other great movies, which I began searching out on television and video cassette.  My father, who had grown up watching a lot of those Harryhausen classics in the movie theater, often would join me in front of the TV, sometimes tracking down those films on VHS for me.  I remember watching Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) with him.  Now that I think about it, when my father first saw those films in the movie theater when he was a kid, he would have been pretty much the same age I was when I saw Clash of the Titans.  Maybe when you are six years old it really is a magical age.

Ray Harryhausen with his models for Calibos and Medusa from Clash of the Titlans
Ray Harryhausen with his models for Calibos and Medusa from Clash of the Titlans

It might be difficult to explain to younger people in this age of super-realistic CGI, but back before the advent of computer animation, stop-motion effects were the best way to create monsters and aliens in a super-realistic fashion.  And the master of giving life to these tiny, detailed puppets & models, imbuing them with emotion and subtle gestures, was Ray Harryhausen.

Stop-motion animation required the utmost patience, as well a tremendous skill.  The process involved moving the model a minute amount, shooting one frame of film, moving the model a bit more, shooting another frame, and repeating the process numerous times until you had several minutes of footage.  And at the end, after all those long days of work, hopefully you had something that looked natural and alive, rather than awkward & jerky. Well, I tell you, Harryhausen’s creations definitely possessed a smoothness & fluidity.

The sequence at the end of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts is considered one of the greatest achievements of Harryhausen’s career.  Having killed the Hydra and obtained the Golden Fleece, Jason is making his way back to his boat the Argos.  Jason and two of the Argonauts stay to hold off the forces of the vengeful King Aeetes while the rest of the crew retreat to their vessel.  Aeetes takes the teeth of the slain Hydra and sprinkles them on the ground, in effect sowing them.  And the bitter fruit that sprouts up are “the children of the Hydra’s teeth,” seven skeletal warriors.  Aeetes bellows “Kill! Kill! Kill them all!” and the undead soldiers charge.  We then have an absolutely amazing fight sequence, as Harryhausen seamlessly integrates the live action footage of the three actors with his stop-motion animation of the seven skeletons.

(If you do a search on YouTube, I’m sure you can find the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts posted there.  If you haven’t seen it before, it is definitely well worth viewing.)

The skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts
The skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts

I had long often hoped that one day I would have the opportunity to meet Harryhausen, so I could let him know just how much enjoyment his films brought me.  Unfortunately, that’s now never going to happen.  But I do know that in the 1980s and 90s, appreciation for Harryhausen’s work grew by leaps & bounds in sci-fi fandom, and a great many other people did have the chance to tell him how much his work meant to them.  This included a number of individuals who went on to become very successful filmmakers in their own right, among them Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, and John Landis.  So I’m glad to know that Ray Harryhausen lived a long, productive, happy life, and that he was received recognition for his amazing creative accomplishments.

Happy birthday to Elaine Lee

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to writer Elaine Lee, who was born on April 22, 19XX (I’m not going to guess the year, because it is impolite to speculate about a woman’s age).  I first discovered Lee’s work back during the summer of 1994.  Lee had collaborated with artist William Simpson and cover artist Brian Bolland to create Vamps, a miniseries about a quintet of sexy vampire bikers crisscrossing the highways of America.  The book was published by DC Comics under their Vertigo banner.  Lee was doing a signing at the Heroes World comic shop in White Plains NY, and I picked up the first issue there.  Lee had come to the signing with her friend Rachel Pollack, whose bizarre writing I had been enjoying on Doom Patrol.  It was there that I learned that Pollack was also a prose author, and soon after I picked up a copy of her excellent novel Unquenchable Fire.

Vamps #1
Vamps #1

Vamps was a pretty good read, and I was interested in finding some more work by Lee.  I soon discovered that she had written the sci-fi series Starstruck, which ran for six issues under Marvel Comics’ Epic imprint in 1985, as well as a graphic novel.  I found a copy of the first issue, and was totally blown away by the amazing artwork by Michael Kaluta.  Truth to tell, I was a bit confused by the events in Lee’s story, but Kaluta’s art was simply amazing.  This was the beginning of my love affair with his work, and I soon became a huge fan.

This was also the first time I learned that Starstruck had originally begun life as an off-Broadway play, via the cute editorial cartoon on the inside cover, wherein a robotic Archie Goodwin presented the readers with a striking portrait of Elaine Lee herself in the role of freedom fighter Galatia 9, as seen below:

Archie Goodwin presents Elaine Lee as Galatia 9
Archie Goodwin presents
Elaine Lee as Galatia 9

A few years later, I started running into Kaluta himself at several NYC comic conventions.  He must have mentioned that the original Starstruck script could be found on Amazon.  I ordered a copy and when I read it, I was laughing out loud almost non-stop.  The script was written by Elaine Lee, Susan Norfleet Lee and Dale Place.  Michael Kaluta did the imaginative & intricate costume and set designs.  A funny & clever homage to and parody of space opera, it had two month-long runs, first in 1980 and then in 1983.

Early on, Lee and Kaluta decided they wanted to expand the Starstruck universe and characters beyond what was seen on stage, and planned out a whole series of comic books & graphic novels.  Starstruck, in addition to the Epic issues, appeared in the pages of Heavy Metal, through Dark Horse, and then finally a 13 issue miniseries published by IDW starting in 2009.  That was a combination of “remastered” older material and brand new work by Lee & Kaluta.  Having met both Lee and Kaluta at different comic book conventions throughout the years, I knew that they had a wealth of unpublished stories that they’d one day hoped to bring to print.  So I was thrilled when the IDW series was released, although I did end up waiting for the trade paperback edition so I’d have everything in one handy volume.

Starstruck script book
Starstruck script book

Currently Lee and Kaluta are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in order to publish a new graphic novel, Harry Palmer: Starstruck.  I definitely wish them the best of luck.  After so many years of dormancy, it’s great that they have these opportunities to return to the Starstruck universe.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. The second time I met Elaine Lee was, I believe, a year later.  She was at a comic con in upstate NY, somewhere in the Hudson Valley.  One of the books she had for sale was her graphic novel anthology of erotic sci-fi stories, Skin Tight Orbit.  I really wanted to get a copy, but back then I was only 19 years old, plus my father was with me at the show, so I was much too embarassed to buy it!  Hmmm, all these years later, and I still don’t have that book.  Time to look for it on Amazon, I guess.

But, anyway, each of the times I’ve met Elaine Lee, she’s always come across as a very friendly person.  It’s always a pleasure to see her at a convention or on Facebook.  So, once again, let us wish a very happy something-something birthday to the talented, lovely, and very pleasant Elaine Lee.  Here’s hoping for many more years of amazing stories from your pen.

Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon

Today would have been the 82nd birthday of legendary artist Al Williamson, who was born on March 21, 1931.  Williamson passed away on June 12, 2010, aged 79.  He left behind an impressive body of richly illustrated work that spanned decades.

I was very fortunate to meet Williamson on a couple of occasions at comic book conventions.  I can confirm that his talent was matched by his kindness & generosity.  He once drew a quick sketch for me of a warrior fighting a dinosaur.  During the other encounter, I witnessed him very helpfully giving advice & feedback to an aspiring artist who had brought along samples of his work.  Williamson took the time to patiently walk this fan through various steps & suggestions to show how he could work to improve as an illustrator.

To commemorate the legacy of Al Williamson, I am presenting a revised piece I originally wrote a couple of years ago concerning his work on one of the characters he became very closely associated with throughout his career:

Out of all the artists who have drawn Flash Gordon in the newspaper comic strips and comic books, there are two who are most frequently associated with the character.  The first is Alex Raymond, who created the series in 1933.  The second is, of course, Al Williamson.

Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic, issued by Flesk Publications, assembles together for the first time Williamson’s complete works on the series.  Accompanying this material is in-depth historical and critical commentary by writer/artist Mark Schultz.

Al Williamson Flash Gordon 1

Al Williamson was an amazing artist, a creator who could depict vast, sweeping science fiction vistas populated by two-fisted heroes, stunningly beautiful heroines, sneering villains, exotic aliens, and monumental high-tech fortress cities.  He was probably one of the greatest illustrators of the twentieth century when it came to drawing space opera.

In his commentary, Schultz examines how Williamson, a shy child in an unhappy family environment, turned to drawing as a form of solace.  And then, in 1941, at age ten, Williamson went to the cinema and saw Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.  It was a life-changing experience, one that caused him to begin following the Alex Raymond newspaper strip.  Williamson became a lifelong fan of both the character and his creator.

When I picked up this book, I was genuinely surprised at the relative paucity of published work that Al Williamson had done featuring Flash Gordon.  So synonymous were the names Al Williamson and Flash Gordon to me that I actually believed he had worked for years on the newspaper strip, and illustrated dozens of comic books featuring the hero.

In reality, Williamson only drew three issues of the Flash Gordon comic book in the 1960s, illustrated the movie adaptation in 1980, and did a two issue miniseries for Marvel in the early 1990s.  He also drew various comic book covers, prints, and advertisements featuring Flash, and occasionally pitched in as an assistant on the comic strip.  And that was it.

(Williamson actually did have extended runs on two other newspaper strips, Secret Agent Corrigan and Star Wars, both of which he worked on with writer Archie Goodwin.  The two of them collaborated frequently throughout the years, always to great results.)

It really says a great deal that, despite this rather small body of work on Flash Gordon, Williamson became so very closely connected with the character in the minds of readers.  In a way, this is understandable, as Williamson was very influenced by Alex Raymond, and can be seen as something of a successor.  But, as Schultz observes, the young Williamson quickly grew beyond a slavish imitator, and throughout the majority of his career continually developed and refined his individual style.  Really, I think the fact that Williamson’s love for the character and universe of Flash Gordon is so readily apparent in the work that he did illustrate is what played a major role in his becoming so intimately associated with the series.

Al Williamson Flash Gordon 2

Williamson’s earliest work on Flash Gordon was assisting on the inking of the newspaper strip in 1953, when it was being drawn by Dan Barry.  Obviously, Williamson’s impact on the look of the strip was minimal.  The book does reprint one example that demonstrates his artistic contribution to the strip.

It was in 1965, when King Features, the owners of the Flash Gordon property, decided to venture into comic book publishing, that Williamson got his first proper crack at illustrating the character.  Due to tight deadlines, Williamson was only able to draw three issues, plus an additional cover.  But, oh, in that short space of time he rendered some incredibly exquisite artwork, full of both dynamic excitement and delicate beauty.  The writing on these stories, of which Williamson also had a hand in, is at times a little simplistic, the plotting a bit dodgy.  But the stunning artwork by Williamson more than makes up for any deficiencies in the stories.

Williamson’s next opportunity to draw Flash Gordon came in 1980, when the Dino De Laurentiis-produced movie was in the works.  Williamson was hired to illustrate the comic book adaptation of the film.  Initially enthusiastic at the assignment, Williamson soon found it becoming a chore due to a lack of reference material and last-minute script changes.  Also, when De Laurentiis decided to take the film in a more campy direction, Williamson, long-time Flash Gordon fan that he was, felt disappointed.

Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, and Williamson’s dissatisfaction with the film, the artwork for the Flash Gordon movie adaptation is amazing.  You can see an artist at his peak, as Williamson renders the story in a grandiosely detailed, operatic manner.  Appropriately, there is a very cinematic quality to his artwork.  It appears that, despite the filmmakers’ intentions, Williamson and scripter Bruce Jones took the material seriously.  The adaptation offers a glimpse of what the film might have been like if it had not veered so far into camp territory.

(Myself, I rather like the film, although at times it does have a “so bad it’s good” quality to it.  As fun as it is, I think it would have been improved by taking things as least a little bit more seriously.  And having Flash Gordon as a quarterback for the New York Jets was annoying.  I mean, in the comic strip the character graduated from Yale.  He had brains and brawn.  I really do love the soundtrack by Queen, though.  But I can understand why Williamson, who came from an earlier generation, might not have been as keen for the music of Freddie Mercury & Co.)

Al Williamson Flash Gordon 3

Williamson’s final major foray into the world of Flash Gordon came a decade later with the Marvel Comics miniseries, which was written by Mark Schultz himself.  At the time, Williamson may have been starting to experience the onset of glaucoma, a condition that would plague him at the end of his career (honestly, I cannot think of a worse fate for an artist, especially one as talented and precise as Williamson, as losing your sight).  Despite his difficulties in completing the project, the two issue miniseries has some wonderful work.  To my untrained eye, I really cannot see much, if any, of a drop in the quality and detail of Williamson’s work.  I bought this when it first came out, and really enjoyed it. Schultz writes a high-energy adventure that also reveals the secret origin of Flash Gordon, while Williamson gets to draw the diverse, exotic regions of the planet Mongo and its colorful inhabitants.  So it was a pleasure to re-read it.

The dimensions of Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic measure 9” by 12” (as opposed to the typical 6.5″ by 10″ of regular comic books).  The majority of the artwork is presented in back & white.  The oversized nature of the book, coupled with this black & white reproduction, really enables the reader to see the precise detail and fine quality of Williamson’s work.  For example, as impressed as I was by his art on the Marvel series when it was published at standard comic size and in color in the early 1990s, here it looks even more amazing when blown up and in crisp black & white.

The text by Schultz is extremely informative.  It is respectful to Williamson without being slavish.  An artist himself, Schultz possesses the technical knowledge and aptitude to critically examine Williamson’s development as an artist over the years, to point out his major accomplishments within the material he did for the series, and to recognize the unfortunate beginnings of decline in his later work.

I highly recommend Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic.  It assembles a wealth of material that has never been collected before, much of which has been out of print for decades.  The book is a stunning showcase of Williamson’s artistic accomplishments.

As I said before, Al Williamson passed away in 2010.  Looking at the copyright page of the book, I see that it was printed a year previously, in June 2009.  I was certainly happy to find out that Williamson lived long enough to see the publication of this fantastic volume.

New York Comic Con 2012: a convention report

Last Sunday I went to the New York Comic Con held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.  Even though the Comic Con was a four day-long event, I decided to just attend it the final day.  Every year I do very much look forward to going to the show.  Conversely, every year it gets bigger and bigger, and so the prospect of having to compete with a gigantic crowd of people is somewhat daunting.  Because of that, and since I’m on a pretty slim budget, for the second year in a row I made the decision to just go on Sunday.

My main objective this time around was that I wanted to obtain a commission from artist Joe Staton.  You see, one of my all time favorite Batman stories is “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne,” written by Alan Brennert and illustrated by Joe Staton & George Freeman. It featured the wedding of Batman and Catwoman on Earth Two, and appeared in The Brave and the Bold #197, published in 1983.  I first had the opportunity to read the story in the early 1990s when it was collected in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told trade paperback. I must have read it at least a dozen times, probably more. Years later, I found a copy of the original issue, and got it autographed by Joe Staton. I think it has some of the finest artwork of his career.

In any case, for a long time now, because The Brave and the Bold #197 is such a favorite of mine, I’ve hoped to get an illustration of the Golden Age Catwoman from Staton. As I mentioned before, I was really on a limited budget this year, so this was going to be my one big purchase of the entire convention.  So as soon as I got to the show on Sunday morning, I made my way right to Artist Alley and headed to Staton’s table.  Turns out I was in the nick of time; his sketch list was almost completely filled up, and he had just one single spot left on it.  I dropped off my sketchbook at Joe table, paid him for the sketch, and then headed out to explore the rest of the convention, since I knew it would be a few hours before he’d get up to my piece.

I mostly stuck to Artist Alley this year, since that was a relatively less crowded area than the main convention floor.  I decided that since I wasn’t going to be able to buy too much, I’d bring along books that I already have to get autographed.  Luckily, most of the creators I hoped to see were there, although a few had unfortunately decided to skip Sunday.  I was bummed out to miss Erik Larsen, since I am a huge fan of Savage Dragon.

One of the few books I picked up was the Starstruck trade paperback by Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta.  Starstruck began life as an Off-Off-Broadway play in 1980, a comedic space opera written by Lee, with costume & set designs by Kaluta.  A few years later, Lee and Kaluta adapted Starstruck into a series of comic book stories which appeared through a number of publishers.  The pair had the ambition to eventually compile the entirety of the comic book material into one massive volume, and after a couple of false starts, they were finally able to achieve that recently at IDW.  Elaine Lee was at the NYCC this year, and so I purchased the collected edition from her.  She also autographed my copy of the Starstruck stage play which I acquired via Amazon.Com many moons ago.  I’m looking forward to reading this one.

An acquaintance of mine, artist Steve Ellis, had at table at NYCC.  Steve’s a cool guy, so it was nice to see him again.  We caught up on old times.  He was generous enough to do a quick drawing for me in one of my sketchbooks.  I asked him to sketch Stiletto, one of the characters from the superhero crime noir series The Silencers that he co-created with Fred Van Lente several years back.  I always enjoyed that book, and I hope one day Steve & Fred have the opportunity to bring it back.

Shaking hands with Peter Davison

There were a number of actors at NYCC doing signings & panel discussions.  I was very interested in meeting two of them.  The first was Peter Davison, who portrayed the Fifth Doctor on Doctor Who in the early 1980s.  As anyone who reads this blog will know, I am a huge Doctor Who fan.  That and it is very rare that you get to meet someone who you literally grew up watching on television.  So I was a bit tongue-tied when I got his autograph.  I think Davison was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned that I had been in London back in 1999 and seen him perform in the musical Chicago.  Currently he is appearing in Law & Order UK as Henry Sharpe, Director of the London Crown Prosecution Service (the equivalent of the District Attorney).  The show is scheduled to begin filming a new season shortly.

The other actor I really wanted to meet was Ian McDiarmid, who so memorably played the diabolical Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films.  It may sound strange, considering the Emperor is a figure of pure evil, but he is one of my favorite character from the series.  He got so many great lines of dialogue, and McDiarmid brought him to vile life so wonderfully.  Unfortunately, it turned out that McDiarmid was asking a whopping $125 for an autograph!  Obviously I had to pass on that.  But there apparently are a lot of people who are willing to fork over that kind of money, because I saw there was a very long line at his table (I wonder if some comic book and sci-fi fans eat Ramen noodles 365 days a year so they can save up their money for events like Comic Con).  Fortunately, McDiarmid was doing an hour-long panel discussion that afternoon.  It was quite entertaining, as McDiarmid really knows how to work a room & spin a yarn, so I’m glad I was at least able to attend that.

I only went up to the main floor of the show once.  I was going to the Doctor Who Store table, because I wanted to purchase one of the Big Finish audio plays for Peter Davison to autograph.  It was a total madhouse, wall-to-wall people, and it took me fifteen minutes just to get to where I wanted to go.  When I finally arrived at the Doctor Who Store, it was packed.  As someone who grew up watching the series in the 1980s, when it was very much a cult phenomenon here in the States, it still amazes me that now, with the revival of the show, it is now this huge hit, and millions of people watch it on BBC America.  So seeing this gigantic crowd around the booth was unexpected, because I still half-expect people to give me a blank look when I tell them I watch Doctor Who.  But, as one of the people working at the Who Store table responded when I told him that, “Those days are long gone.”

Joe and Hilarie Staton

After the Ian McDiarmid panel, I headed back to Artist Alley.  Walking up and down the aisles, I was somewhat disappointed that I was on such a tiny budget, because there were so many artists doing such amazing sketches, and selling some really nice published comic book pages.  But once I got to Joe Staton’s table, my regrets vanished.  Staton did an absolutely stunning drawing of Catwoman in my sketchbook.  It has to be one of the best pieces I’ve gotten in the book.  I decided it was better to have gotten one really outstanding sketch than a handful of average pieces.  So I know I made the right choice.

As always, there were some fans wearing amazing costumes at the Comic Con.  I took photographs of several of them.  You can view them on Flickr:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bh123/sets/72157631780614797/detail/

All in all, it was a pretty fun convention.  I enjoyed myself.  Hopefully next year, though, I’ll have a bigger budget and be able to attend more than one day, because I’d like to be able to see more of the show, and also pace myself instead of rushing all over the place!

Comic book reviews: Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis

Okay, so I was originally going to do a write-up on Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis in an upcoming post on graphic novels that I’ve been reading.  But then I realized it didn’t quite fit into that category.  Written & drawn by Simon Fraser, The Mines of Charybdis originally appeared as a weekly web comic on ACT-I-VATE in 2009, and subsequently appeared in print as an eight part serial in the Judge Dredd Megazine.  In 2011, Fraser released a limited edition trade paperback collection of the story, and I was fortunate enough to score a copy of that.

The Scottish-born Fraser is probably best known for co-creating with Robbie Morrison the swashbuckling Russian rogue Nikolai Dante in the pages of 2000 AD.  Fraser has worked on a number of other features for that famed British anthology, including flagship character Judge Dredd.  Among his other works was an excellent comic book adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel Hell House done with Ian Edginton at IDW.

Lilly Mackenzie is Fraser’s creator owned series.  Lilly is a sexy space adventurer, seemingly bubbly and carefree, but with a dark family past.  Her best friend is Cosmo Judd, a brilliant scientist who happens to be a midget, and so is consequently underestimated by many people.  Cosmo carries an unrequited attraction to Lilly.

Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis

The Mines of Charybdis sees Lilly attempting to track down her long lost, ne’er do well brother.  The trail has led to the brutal mining world of Charybdis.  The planet is surrounded by an EMP field, meaning that all electronic equipment does not work.  Settlers and prisoners are sent down in unpowered space capsules, where they are expected to spend the rest of their lives.  The only way of launching the mined ore & minerals back into space is via a mass accelerator.  Due to the enormous acceleration needed to escape the planet’s surface, this would kill any human beings attempting to travel on it.

In other words, Lilly and Cosmo need to find a way to sneak onto a planet with no advanced technology, find Lilly’s brother in a desolate wilderness, and then come up with some sort of method of escaping the planet that won’t leave them pulverized.  The problem is pretty well summed up in an exchange between the two, when Lilly asks “Can’t we just, I dunno, improvise something,” and a disbelieving Cosmo shoots back “Improvise? Improvise what? Physics? Maybe Newton, Einstein and Sinclair got it wrong?”

Of course, Cosmo eventually does come up with a plan to get down to Charybdis safely and, in turn, theorizes a brilliant, yet incredibly dangerous, method of possibly getting the pair of them off the planet.  Possibly, because even if he can get it to work, there’s still no guarantee it won’t end up killing the pair of them.  And before they can even attempt this, they have to locate Lilly’s brother while dealing with any number of desperate thugs and crooks who are imprisoned on Charybdis.

Fraser does a superb job of blending two often disparate aspects of science fiction, namely space opera and “hard science” speculative fiction.  He appears to have conducted a thorough amount of research into physics to have devised Cosmo’s ingenious scheme.  Fraser also adds in what you might consider to be high-octane, adrenaline-packed action sequences, with Lilly doing some major ass-kicking.  And at the same time, he makes sure to really develop his characters, to show the depths of their personalities.

It’s unfortunate that economics only allowed Fraser to release the collected edition of Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis in a limited print run, because it is an excellent story, one I highly recommend.  But you can read it in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine #298 to #305.  Those may be difficult to locate here in the States (you can always try to find them on Ebay or something) so if not, then definitely go to the ACT-I-VATE website and read it there.  Fraser’s sequel, The Treasure of Paros, is also online, along with various other excellent series by a number of talented creators.

The ACT-I-VATE Primer

In 2009, IDW published The ACT-I-VATE Primer, a hardcover anthology featuring 16 new stories.  Among the creators whose work is featured in The ACT-I-VATE Primer are Dean Haspiel, Roger Langridge, Pedro Camargo, Molly Crabapple, Tim Hamilton, and Mike Cavallaro.  Fraser’s contribution was “When Lilly Met Cosmo,” a prequel tale that reveals how Lilly Mackenzie and Cosmo Judd first met.  It’s a good story in an excellent collection of material, and I highly recommend purchasing a copy.

Memories of Ray Bradbury

I was sad to learn of science fiction author Ray Bradbury’s death on June 5th at the age of 91.  In my youth, I read a number of his stories.  His short story collections The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles are both in my personal library, and I discovered numerous others of his tales in various sci-fi anthology books.  In addition, I frequently watched The Ray Bradbury Theater, which adapted his short stories for television.  And I enjoyed reprints of the EC Comics’ adaptations of his writings which were featured in the pages of their famed science fiction and horror titles.

Ray Bradbury: August 22, 1920 − June 5, 2012
Ray Bradbury: August 22, 1920 − June 5, 2012

What really made Bradbury’s work stand out for me was that he so deftly blended science fiction with horror.  In his stories, the wonders of the infinite universe stood side-by-side with the darkest of primal terrors.  Bradbury’s prose could be incredibly poetic.  Yet, at the same time, there was a certain disquiet to his writing.  The forlorn searching of the sea serpent for another of its kind in “The Fog Horn,” the cruelty that children can exhibit towards one another in “All Summer in a Day,” the descent of the human mind into madness in “The Long Rain;” the stories of Bradbury were often imbued with a sense of palpable anxiety.

There are certain specific stories that Bradbury penned that stand out in my mind.  Foremost among them is “A Sound of Thunder,” one of the most brilliant and revolutionary examinations of the theory of time travel, framed around a safari to hunt dinosaurs.  The idea that one single minute action could reverberate through the ages was astounding to me.  As Bradbury wrote,

“It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominos and then big dominos and then gigantic dominos, all through the years across Time.”

It was my introduction to what I now recognize as the Butterfly Effect, in this case quite literally.  And the ending was unremittingly bleak.

(“A Sound of Thunder” was one of the Bradbury stories adapted by EC Comics.  Illustrated by the legendary Al Williamson, it appeared in Weird Science-Fantasy #25, cover dated September 1954.  In 1993, Topps Comics reprinted the Williamson adaptation in the first issue of the short-lived Ray Bradbury Comics anthology series.  That comic also contained a brand-new adaptation, with beautiful artwork by Richard Corben.  It’s interesting to compare the two versions, and see the narrative decisions each artist made in translating the story from prose to sequential illustration.)

"A Sound of Thunder" comic book adaptation by Al Williamson, page one
“A Sound of Thunder” comic book adaptation by Al Williamson, page one

“The Veldt” was written in 1950, and in retrospect is probably one of the first short stories to postulate virtual reality.   Bradbury sees this technological development not as a positive one, but something with effects akin to an addictive drug, complete with isolation from the rest of humanity.  This is demonstrated through Peter and Wendy, two children who spend all of their time within their telepathic “nursery,” to the exclusion of all else.  The ending is, once again, an especially grim one.

One of the most frightening stories I read when I was younger had to be “Mars is Heaven” (re-titled “The Third Expedition” in The Martian Chronicles).  An expedition to Mars arrives on the Red Planet to find what appears to be a pastoral early-20th Century small town populated by the deceased relatives of the rocket ship crew.  The astronauts are quickly pulled in by this seeming paradise.  But obviously all is not as it appears.  Bradbury effectively ratchets up the suspense as the story progresses.  It climaxes in something horrible happening to the crew, and Bradbury leaves it ambiguous exactly what has taken place.  He must have realized that the unknown is often much more terrifying than what we do see.  Certainly my young mind filled in all sorts of nightmarish possibilities trying to figure out what horrific fate had befallen the astronauts.

Not a stand-alone story as such was the framing device for The Illustrated Man collection.  I found it especially effective, the concept that a man had been covered from neck to toe in mystical tattoos, and that the lines of ink come alive to reveal events of the past, present and future, of our world and many others.  It was an interesting method of linking together the disparate short stories collected in the volume.  And in the denouement of the collection, Bradbury returns to the tattooed man and the narrator, offering a chilling moment of disquiet.

The Illustrated Man
The Illustrated Man

Despite his recent illness, Bradbury was active as a writer up until the end.  He contributed an essay, “Take Me Home,” to the recent science fiction themed issue of The New Yorker, which was topped off by a charming cover illustrated by Daniel Clowes.  In his essay, Bradbury reflects on his childhood, and the influences that led him to write some of his stories.  An idyllic piece, it was a lovely way to cap off a brilliant career that spanned seven decades.  It is certainly a fitting tribute to the man and his work.

Not all futures are created equal

“Oh, our old future.” – Crow T. Robot, Mystery Science Theater 3000

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow blogger posted the cover to an old science fiction paperback short story collection (I finally located that post again, and it can be viewed at this link).  The art was what you might regard as your typical mid-20th Century vision of the future: an image of a gleaming metallic cityscape with flying cars darting back & forth above it.  The blogger made a comment along the lines of it isn’t the future unless you have some flying cars in it.

This got me thinking about how popular culture has conceived of the future playing out.  Growing up in the early 1980s, the 21st Century still seemed far enough away that all of the images of personal jetpacks, robots in every household, and traveling to other planets being just a few short decades away still seemed at least semi-plausible.  Whether in a cartoon series like The Jetsons or more serious fare such as Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was a commonplace prediction that some sort of hi-tech, shiny future was just around the corner.

Where's my flying car?
Dude, where’s my flying car?

I remember when 2001, that is to say, the real year 2001 rolled around, I half-jokingly commented to some friends “What the hell is this? Shouldn’t we have flying cars by now?  Where are the colonies on the Moon?  Why aren’t we flying back & forth in outer space in rocket ships, fighting aliens with ray guns?”  I say half-jokingly, because there was still that part of me that was just the tiniest bit disappointed that none of this had come to pass.  Well, okay, I can do without the bug-eyed monsters packing heat.  And if we really did have flying cars, I’d probably drive one just as poorly as I do a regular automobile.  But, still, the future just seemed like it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

And most speculative fiction from forty or fifty years ago really did miss the mark as far as what kind of technology we would have in the early 21st Century.  Instead of teleportation and time travel, what we got was the microchip revolution, the Internet, MP3s, iPads, flash drives, etc.  We’re still stuck on Earth, unable to colonize the galaxy, but the ability to spread information across the globe has grown in astonishing leaps & bounds.  Perhaps some of the disappointment lies in the fact that these developments, as incredible as they are, were not what we were led to expect.  And there is also that lingering disappointment left over from the previous century that technological advancement would eventually lead to the betterment of humanity.

Of course, it’s not like most fictional conceptions of the future were totally utopian.  George Jetson had his flying car and his home in a floating city, but he still had to deal with a douchebag boss, nagging wife, and spoiled kids.  Kubrick & Clarke’s vision of 2001 saw humans traveling to the other side of the solar system, but we still did a half-ass job at programming computers, to the point where HAL 9000 wanted to kill off its entire crew.

So I guess it wasn’t so much that those visions of the future were perfect, because they weren’t.  It’s just that they had such cool stuff.

Mind you, for every romanticized prediction of the 21st Century, there were also plenty of conjectures that the future might turn out to be a much darker place.  On one hand, the mid-20th Century rise of both the Axis powers and Communism begat visions of the all-encompassing totalitarian dystopia, best exemplified in the George Orwell novel 1984.  On the other hand, nuclear proliferation led to forecasts of ragged survivors roaming radiation-ravaged post-apocalyptic wastelands, as seen in such films as The Road Warrior.

The Lost World: a nice future to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there
The Lost World: a nice future to visit, but you certainly wouldn’t want to live there

And if you want a really pessimistic outlook on the day after tomorrow, you should consider the so-bad-it’s-good David Worth film Warrior of the Lost World, which I would have to describe as “1984 meets The Road Warrior.”  In that future scenario, you would face the prospect of having both fascist stormtroopers and mutant cannibal biker gangs simultaneously chasing after your rear end.  Not a pretty picture!

(Incidentally, Warrior of the Lost World was screened on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which brings us back to quote that opened this blog post.)

So, considering all of the options, the real future that we have right now isn’t nearly as bad as it could be.  Yeah, it isn’t The Jetsons, but at least we haven’t had to live through World War III yet.

That said, I’m still holding out for flying cars.  But knowing how things work out, we’d probably still have traffic jams.

Does Sci-Fi Get The Respect It Deserves?

I have been a science fiction fan since I was a kid.  There has always been something magical about the genre for me.  One of my favorites growing up was the original Star Trek television series, which was in reruns on Saturday nights in the late 1970s and early 80s.  I looked forward to catching a “new” episode of that each weekend.  I was too young to see the first Star Trek film in the theaters, probably a good thing, in retrospect, given that it’s a long, ponderous movie that really needed a lot of fine-tuning and editing.

But by the time Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hit the big screen in 1982, I was six years old, and my father took me to see it.  To be perfectly honest, I was not thrilled by it.  The movie was too dark & downbeat for me, and it ended with Spock dying.  Over the years, though, I often heard it referred to as the absolute best film of the entire series, and I just could not understand why.

Fast-forward to 2002, and the two disk DVD “director’s edition” of Star Trek II came out.  On an impulse, I purchased it, because despite my original impression of it, I never actively hated the film.  It had been years since I had last seen it, so I thought this would be a good time to look at it with a fresh perspective and see what all the fuss was about.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD

Well, what a difference twenty years can make!  I was completely blown away when I re-watched The Wrath of Khan.  There were so many themes in it that I had not picked up on when I was a kid.  Dealing with death and loss, growing old, morality and science, the all-consuming passion of vengeance, making the decision whether to dwell in the past or to move on to the future, and much more.  Since then, I’ve viewed it on several subsequent occasions.  Each time, I get a little bit something more out of it.

So much of the film is of the highest quality.  The script by Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer is crisp, intelligent, witty, and thought-provoking.  James Horner’s’ soundtrack is stunning.  And the directing by Meyer is riveting, dramatic, and absolutely top-notch.   I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Meyer succeeds in obtaining one of the best performances out of William Shatner in his entire career, no easy feat.  And the acting by Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Ricardo Montalban is likewise top-notch.

Last week, I watched The Wrath of Khan again.  And something occurred to me.  Yes, it is a great science fiction film.  But, I realized, it is also an excellent film, period, regardless of genre.  This got me thinking.  Science fiction really gets very little respect of acknowledgement among so-called legitimate film “critics.”

I was curious, so I looked up the Academy Award nominees for 1982.  The frontrunner of the year was, unsurprisingly, Ganhdi, a good if overly long film.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial had received several nominations.  But not a single nod to Star Trek II, not even in the technical categories.

What do you mean we didn't win an Oscar?!?!?
What do you mean we didn’t win an Oscar?!?!?

Nowadays, the Academy Awards do make at least a passing effort at trying to acknowledge more “mainstream” films, having increased the potential number of best picture nominees to ten.  Even so, the way the Academy members actually vote, the probability of film such as Star Trek II being nominated, much less winning, a Best Picture Oscar is very low.  Witness the most recent awards, where The Artist was swept up six Oscars.  Brilliant film, yes, but the equally great, very funny comedy Bridesmaids didn’t even warrant a nomination.  (Of course, the manner in which voting is tabulated for the Oscar nominations and actual awards is apparently so convoluted that it makes filling out your taxes seem simple by comparison.  So for all we know Bridesmaids just narrowly missed the cut-off.)

What is the point of all this?  I am actually not sure.  Part of it is my lamenting that those aforementioned critics often believe it is impossible for a film to be both popular and of high artistic merit.  Especially when it comes to science fiction.

Then again, hindsight can be twenty twenty.  The history of film criticism, and the Academy Awards in particular, is rife with “What the hell were they thinking!?!” moments that totally stupefy you.  One of the most infamous was when How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture for 1941, beating out Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a film now regarded as one of the absolute all time greatest movies ever made.  So who knows how history will judge?

In the meantime, regardless of how such-and-such critic opines concerning cinematic fare, or what movie wins what awards, I will be watching what I feel like watching.  And that includes science fiction, thank you very much.