Saturday, October 21, 2006

Superheroes on Stamps!

Hey! Have you guys seen these? I was out running errands around town this morning and I needed a book of stamps. Lo and behold, I found myself gazing at DC Comic superheroes. I asked my mail clerk if I could post the stamps on my blog and he said yeah, so long as I didn't try to print them off on color paper and sell them as stamps.

So here they are. This is a terrific collection, with some beautiful cover art. I was glad to see that many of my favorites are represented. From Superman to Green Lantern, to (old school...) Aquaman to Hawkman! The color on these stamps is dynamic and the art is so beautiful I don't know if I can actually use 'em. Which means I need to go back and by another book of stamps...D'oh!

Also, on the back of these USPS stamps, each artist is credited, and a little bit of data about the superhero is written. For The Brave and The Bold # 36 (with art by Joe Kubert), from June/July 1961, for instance, the legend reads: "Hawkman returned in 1960,
a reincarnated hero from the earlier "Golden Age" of comics. The new Winged Wonder and his spouse Hawkgirl were intergalactic police officers from a distant planet, meting out justice to the villains terrorizing Midway City."

Superheroes on postage? I give the idea thumbs up. This set is listed as "Chapter One," and I'm looking forward to Chapter Two. More stuff to collect, right?

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Monster of the Glacier"

Flash Gordon's ninth chapter, "Monster of the Glacier" (by writer Ted Pederson) finds Dr. Zarkov, Thun, Dale and Count Mallow in the evil clutches of Bruka and the giants of Fridgia. Flash and throaty-voiced Queen Fria are assumed to have perished in an avalanche, but in truth, they have survived and are plotting to rescue their friends.

While Dale resists the thuggish advances of the brute Bruka, Flash makes googly-eyes at Fria, calling her a "lovely lady." She offers him a place near her throne (*ahem*), but then they get back to business. While Fria frees the group in a pit, Flash battles Bruka underground for Dale's freedom. Flash is victorious (thanks to a well-placed rock, in a variation of the David vs. Goliath battle).

All together now, the fugitives flee into the caverns (which Flash quips are "worse than the Los Angeles freeway system.") They dive into an underwater river to escape Bruka once and for all, but then find themselves in the "dominion of Korel," a multi-headed electrical hydra. The team appears doomed until Zarkov figures out a way to short circuit the monster, and Thun and Flash do the grunt work. After the beast is destroyed in a cataclysmic series of shocks and pops, Flash comments: "Some fireworks, huh?"

Free now, Flash says goodbye to Queen Fria, who has come to realize that the hunky hero will never leave Dale Arden. They part friends and Flash, Thun, Zarkov and Dale next raid Mongo's rocket railroad! They board the train for Arboria with the Orium they came for, and after destroying several of Ming's metal minions. Then it's au revoir at last to Fridgia (the subject of two chapters).

Watching "Monster of the Glacier," one can determine why Flash Gordon (like Buck Rogers or James Bond) is such a basic and enduring male hero. He's got cool friends (like Thun, a lion man, for goodness sake), a good girl at his side (Dale), and the affection of bad, sexy girls like Aura and Fria. And, he has super-cool adventures in caves, in water, on trains, in spaceships and the like. Who wouldn't want to be this guy? What's funny is that this variation of the character Flash is such a square. Sure, this is a program for kids, but Flash is still awfully righteous and stolid. Every now and then, I miss the leer (and the blatant sexism...) of Gil Gerard's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

TV REVIEW: Friday Night Lights: "Wind Sprints"

Yeah, yeah, I know this isn't a genre program, so it's sort of out of place on a blog that features action figures, trading cards, and reviews of cult movies and Saturday morning cartoons. But what the hell? Friday Night Lights is great television, so at least for the moment, I'm blogging it. (Especially since I keep missing Heroes due to baby feeding and parent sleeping issues...).

"Wind Sprints," The October 17, 2006 episode of Friday Night Lights, picks up a week after quarterback Jason Steele's paralysis during the first game of the season. Matt Saracen is the new quarterback and as the hour begins, we watch as the Panthers play their first full game with the new line-up. In quick-cut montage, we watch a succession of violent tackles as the Panthers go down again and again, failing miserably. These violent moments are intercut with views of Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) screaming at his team in the locker room. "They've all but self destructed," the announcer says of the team, in a game in which the team should have easily "dominated."

For the folks in Dillon, Texas, this loss is the apocalypse and has serious repercussions the next week. That's the theme of the episode "Wind Sprints" as the coach, his family and the players go from being conquering heroes to big time losers. "You shamed your good name," one player is told. The quarterback, Matt is labeled "a loser" in graffiti. The blowback is so bad that anyone associated with the loss might as well wear a scarlet "L" on their jerseys for daring to let down the fans. Poor Saracen is threatened too. He failed during one game (though he played valiantly...) and now recruiters are looking to replace him with a Hurricane Katrina refugee from New Orleans. Nice? What does this teach young people? Fail once, and you're out!

As for Coach Taylor, he's now second guessed and manipulated by everyone, and even his fifteen-year old daughter is accosted over his failure to lead the team to victory. After just two games (and just one loss), Taylor's first season is officially dubbed "disastrous."

Talk about your fair-weather fans. If you lose in your back. Hell hath no fury like angry football fans, I guess, yet what this episode points out nicely is that the team's loss actually builds character and helps these young men come to grips with grief, mourning and their feelings of anxiety. There's a great, climactic moment here, as Coach Taylor gazes at all the moping, whiny team members and decides they've been too indulged. They've been treated like Gods for so long by their peers that they've forgotten that victory is something that they have to work for. So what does he do? Tough love. He drives them out on the school bus to the middle of nowhere during a pounding rain storm - in the middle of a cold night - and makes them run laps through standing water and up and down a steep hill. There's nothing to take your mind off defeat like a physical challenge; like a little hard work, and the coach realizes this truth. The rain purges his team, his soldiers, and revives their spirit. Of course, in real life, such a stunt would likely have parents complaining in droves, and also result in a number of sick players (oopsy...), but it's just the right dramatic touch for the episode. If these boys want to win, they're going to have to fight. It's not going to be easy...

Also in this episode, Lila comes to realize that Jason is never going to get better, and that their dreams of Notre Dame and professional football (and a happy, wealthy marriage) are totally destroyed. It's a hard reckoning, but I love television programs that don't flinch from the truth, and Friday Night Lights gazes at this Texas football sub-culture - the good and the bad - with eyes wide open.

Why do I find this series so appealing? It's fast-paced. It's well-performed, and I just love that visual palette; the "stolen" cinema-verite, you-are-there moments that make the moments on the field (and everywhere else...) look like a battle field. This is one of the most distinctive looking series in a while, and though I hate football, the subculture of football fans is fascinating to me. I hope others are watching. I haven't fully formulated this thesis yet, but in some sense, Friday Night Lights is about war - about winning a war on the playing field. And since America is fighting a war in Iraq right now, there's a weird synchronicity. I don't know, that could be a "big time" reach, but there's something under the surface here that I want to scratch at just a little more...

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Federal Response"

Last night's Jericho, "Federal Response," saw the small Kansas town (which survived a nuclear attack on America)struggling to survive its own local apocalypse. In this case, the sudden resumption of power caused electrical surges all over the city. Fires broke out in the town library (a real disaster, since this branch of the public library might be the basis for all future knowledge...), and also destroyed Eric's house.

As usual, our protagonist Jake (Skeet Ulrich) proved a little too adept at being at the right place at the right time, and figuring out a way to get a water valve open so at least some of the library could be saved in the nick of time (and so that Heather could be rescued...). I realize there's this notion here that Jake was away from Jericho for many years and learned all kinds of trades on this "mysterious" journey, but it's getting to be a little silly that he saves the day in each episode. It's not so much that he's skilled or can think on his feet (I can believe that); but he's particularly lucky at being at the right place at the right time: whether to end a prison convict shoot-out in one episode (after conveniently blowing up a mine entrance...) or finding a downed school-us full of children in need...he's always at precisely the right place and time to avert a tragedy. It makes you wonder how the town ever survived when he was away.

Also, I need someone to explain something to me. The cunning African-American character, Robert Hawkins, is obviously a sleeper agent for some covert force (either our government; or the government that attacked us...), and this week Jake spies him sitting in his backyard utilizing a fully-functioning laptop computer beside a large personal satellite dish. The two exchange brief, angry words over this discovery while trying to save Eric's house, but Jake doesn't follw up. So tell me why? Why doesn't he report the matter (or Hawkins' useful technology...) to anyone in the town? Why not tell his Dad, the mayor. Nor his brother, the mayor's assistant? In a situation like this, wouldn't you report this strange event to someone? At the very least, the equipment should be confiscated for municipal use. I think this is a central flaw in the episode.

Besides this omission, however, "Federal Response" ended on a high (and creepy...) note, as the Homeland Security signal airing on the television gave way to a view of the U.S. Presidential lectern and bald eagle iconography. We were led to expect a speech from El Presidente, but instead the episode ended with the real "Federal Response." To wit, the startling closing image of this Jericho episode involved nuclear missiles heading up from Kansas into the night sky, bound for their targets across the globe. It was a chilling shot, and further evidence that Jericho isn't playing sweet and light with its apocalyptic premise.

I'm still enjoying this program a great deal. It doesn't yet feel like it's deliberately holding information back from viewers as some kind of stalling technique (and that's how Lost feels to me now...sorry), but I would like to see Jake a little more fallible in terms of his heroism. The show has been renewed for a full season, and I think that's great. After the diffident and goofy (and flag waving...) pilot, the series has become one of the highlights of this very strong new season.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

TV REVIEW: Dexter: "Crocodile"

My newest TV addiction is Showtime's freshman serial killer drama, Dexter. We hear so much about morality in politics these days ("values voters" and all), but often morality is just a buzz word or a code for validating entrenched hate ( it's moral to hate gays; it's moral to hate terrorists; it's moral to exercise the death penalty, it's moral to give tax breaks to the rich and not the least according to some "values voters.")

Frankly, the question of morality (and what constitutes morality...) is often left unexplained or undebated in our national conversation.

So far as I can discern thus far, Dexter is a unique series in that it steadfastly addresses that void. As a series, it constantly asks the question: is Dexter Morgan - a sociopath - ...moral?

Wow! How can I ask such a question? I must be a crazy liberal, right? Well bear with me okay. Consider the facts: Dexter protects and nurtures his sister, Debra. That's "good" isn't it? He also takes wonderful care of his girlfriend Rita's children. He protects them and makes them happy. That too is "good," right? Dexter even boasts his own moral code: he follows the "Rules of Harry (James Remar)," his deceased Dad. And Dexter punishes the guilty (admittedly outside the confines of law...). Is enforcing "justice" not the very definition of righteous; of morality? What do you think? Am I barking up the wrong tree here? Is there a case to be made for Dexter as a moral man?

So...Is a man who can feel nothing...capable of morality? That's the enduring and provocative interrogative that Dexter has so expertly raised, and I have to admit, I'm obsessed with the notion. Can a serial killer with no milk of human kindness, no emotions, no feelings be termed good? Can someone totally dispassionate and boasting an insatiable urge to kill, contribute to the betterment of society? Can someone who has never felt emotional pain, truly understand what it means to be human? Or, does he - lacking the barometer of emotions - better understand our existence than those of us who have our judgment clouded? I wonder. And I'm very happy that a mainstream TV series has dedicated itself to tackling so valuable a notion. It proves to me that television has indeed arrived in a new golden age. Like Twin Peaks, Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dexter looks to me like it can be analyzed in the same manner as great literature. Based on the first two episodes, it merits that comparison.

Many questions about morality occupy "Crocodile," Dexter's sophomore episode. At one point, Dexter even asks (in voiceover) "if God is in the details - and God is in this room - God is with me." It's a fascinating point to consider: Dexter employs eye-for-an-eye, Old Testament-style judgments against the evil, and he's learned to "always be sure" that his victims are guilty. So would our society, nay should our society laud and embrace a man like Dexter? Or shun him? Would you want him marrying your sister? Raising your kids?

Before you answer, consider at least that Dexter doesn't fool around with kids, practice graft like some very prominent Conservatives in Congress. Those men are worse than Dexter in my book. They are hypocrites who have hid their bad behavior under the label "moral" for years, right? They have judged others immoral (like President Clinton), when their sin was infinitely worse than his.

In its details, "Crocodile" confirms some of what I blogged about the premiere. To wit, Dexter comes flat out and notes that he is "the outsider looking in" on human society. This is troubling to him, however, because although he can see the pain of others, he "can't feel their pain." This observation comes up in regards to a gangster's brutal murder of a cop and his wife. Dexter attends the funeral and feels out of place. He's bored having to look grief-stricken when he really feels nothing. That's not nice, or even patient, but it doesn't speak directly to Dexter's morality. We can be moral without being polite, right? What does speak to Dexter's morality is that he wants to punish the guilty, and must weigh the consequences of doing so. To wit, he has an opportunity to kill the man who ordered the hit on the cop and his family, but to kill him then and there (in a men's room) would also expose Dexter and end his future capacity to punish the guilty. So which is the greater morality? Killing the bad guy, or preserving oneself to kill many bad guys? That's a true moral dilemma, folks.

Another one of Dexter's bad guys is Matt Chambers (alias Matt Brewster, Matt Rasmussen), a serial DUI murderer who has escaped justice in Boston and now Miami. If Dexter kills the local gangster, Matt Chambers gets away...and can kill again. So Dexter makes a choice.

What I like about this episode of Dexter, as well as each episode I've seen thus far, is that Dexter raises all these questions about morality but doesn't seem to boast a particular agenda. It seems more interested in observing and examining morality than in taking a definitive stance on it. The series doesn't sentimentalize Dexter. He calls himself a monster and does terrible things. Valid points. He also often responds to grotesque, macabre situations with tongue-in-cheek humor. So the series does not view him as a saint or anything like that...and yet he does good works. In recent years, television has given us many unusual heroes with foibles. Think of Monk, the detective with OCD; or Denny Crane, the crusading lawyer with alzheimers and a penchant for romancing younger ladies and talking out of turn. Dexter purposefully carries this trend as far as it can go, asking us to observe the life of a crusading sociopath; a man with no feelings, but who definitively does "good," who cleans up society's trash; and who is decent to his family and extended family.

Some people decry moral relativism in our culture. But after years of hearing some prominent politicians discuss "evil doers" across the globe and then categorically deny health care to children at home, I'm delighted to see a series that acknowledges that there are shades of gray in our world. Everything isn't black and white, and Dexter is the most philosophically deep program to come down the line in quite some time. It is consumed with dark questions about our existence, and what constitutes human morality.

Frankly, I'm riveted.