Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Comic Book Flashback #10: The Micronauts, Chapter One: Homeworld (1978)

It's strange and little disconcerting for me to admit that more than a few of my favorite comic-books of all-time originated; with merchandise. This means these epics were born of -- essentially -- marketing "synergy." Somehow, that makes me feel remarkably shallow (and a little embarrassed). Still, it's useless to deny the truth: the comic-books that I fell in love with as a youth in the late 1970s carry titles such as ROM: The Space Knight, Shogun Warriors and the best of all: The Micronauts.

The Micronauts
comic (from Marvel) premiered in January of 1979 (for just thirty-five cents!). This was the era of Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica, and I suspect that one of the reasons I adored this comic so much is that this complex book serves as an excellent combination of all the genre elements I appreciated in both those franchises, and in Star Trek as well. The stories of the Micronauts are rife with colorful and heroic characters, spectacular space battles, and even a sense of galactic "exploration" in terms of the characters leaving their "Microverse" and ending up on Earth in the twentieth century.

The first issue sets up the premise for the epic saga (which begins a "micro-cosmic NEW SERIES in the MIGHTY MARVEL tradition!"). Written and drawn by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, "Homeworld" lands the reader on a far away world ("once the proudest planet in the subatomic microverse...") that has been torn apart by political and class strife.

In a clever nod to Russian history and the story of the Czars, an insurgency led by the evil scientist Baron Karza wipes out the upper class and royal family. Or, as the comic puts it, "The elite of Homeworld have been overthrown by a small body of insurgents." The entire world, it seems, has "turned upon its hereditary rulers!" In turn for destroying the ruling class, the people have been promised virtual immortality by Karza, who runs the planet's grim "Body Banks," which ensure replacement body parts and eternal life for all those who obey the despot. In this world, organs and body parts are a commodity to be traded and used, and one suspects there is a Cold War parable here about Communism and a perceived lack of individuality amongst the Marxists.

The noble ruling family, led by Prince Argon and Princess Mari, can't compete with the promise of never-ending life, and is all but massacred in the rebellion. Argon is captured by Karza (and submitted to experimentation in the body banks...), and Mari is forced to cloak her identity, becoming "Marionette," a kind of pleasure-bot. Meanwhile, Karza's Dog Soldiers and his Acroyear minions destroy the so-called elitists with their "hovering strata-stations" and other weapons of mass destruction. These devices are given beautiful life in the comic; essentially the Micronaut toys made to appear hyper-realistic, and extremely cool.

While the peoples' revolution burns hot on Homeworld, an old starship called Endeavor returns from a thousand year voyage of exploration. The ship is "old...pitted and pocked by the ravages of time and space." Aboard the ship is Commander Arcturus Rann and his robot servant, Biotron. He expects a hero's welcome on return to Homeworld, but instead is termed a dangerous "X-Factor" by Baron Karza (Rann's former instructor at school...) and greeted with a firing squad.

After being blasted by Dog Soldiers, Rann awakens to find himself an unwilling gladiator in Homeworld's deadly games (bread and circuses for the bored populace.) As a prisoner, Raan meets a noble Acroyear warrior/prince who refused to submit to Karza (and whose Brother, Shaitan, is the primary collaborator with the Baron). Rann also encounters an "Insectorvid" named Bug from the planet Kaliklak ("hive world of the Insectivorids")...and teams with them, as well as Princess Mari, to escape the games. An attraction grows between Ran and Mari, and he even learns that his parents -- Dallan and Sepsis -- are revered as symbols of the Resistance because they were the first to defy Karza nearly a millennium ago.

Before long, Rann, Mari and the others flee the planet in the old Endeavor (kind of a cross between the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon...) and are pursued by Karza's "Thorium Orbiters." In an attempt to escape from the dedicated pursuit, Rann takes his straining ship beyond the very limits of the "space wall" separating the tiny Microverse from another reality all together...and these dynamic characters are soon bound for adventures on Earth.

For a comic-book based on a set of (highly-popular) toys, there's a commendable amount of complexity to The Micronauts; complexity which makes many issues a highly-involving read, even thirty years after original publication. For instance, Rann spent a thousand years probing microverse space "telepathically" aboard the Endeavor, and in the process, accidentally created a mysterious doppelganger for himself, called "The Time Traveler," (also known as "The Enigma Force." ) This character plays a crucial role in the resolution of the rebellion and the destruction of Karza. There are also the mysterious "Shadow Priests" of Homeworld, pursuing their own strange and hidden agenda.

Some characters certainly appear reminiscent of Star Wars, particularly the big droid/little droid combo of Biotron (a 6000 series of "thinking roboids") and Microtron. And some elements seem familiar from Dune (the priests), and Buck Rogers too (the man returning to a world changed after several hundred years), but overall the comic boasts a deeper grounding in human history. I mentioned the story of the Czars, but the Prince of the Acroyears is another example of how our history has been re-cast as cosmic history. This character is often described as "Spartan" in nature, and in essence is a representative of a warrior race dedicated to combat and honor (think Leonidas, I guess...)

To some extent, Star Trek: The Next Generation picked up on this idea in the late 1980s, when the Mongol-like Klingons of the original series were transformed into honor-obsessed Spartan-type warriors in episodes such as "Sins of the Father." In issue #12 of The Micronauts, ("Blood Feud"), for instance, Prince Acroyear had to return home and combat Shaitan (a character not unlike Duras), for the ruler-ship of their rough world called "Spartak" (again, the Spartan reference...). I'm not saying that TNG stole anything (any more than Micronauts stole from anything in particular...), only that this comic is a place of intelligent, fascinating ideas; ones that reflect our history in interesting and telling ways.

I remember in 1980 and 1981 -- when I was in fifth grade -- I would stay home sick from school some days and spend the entire time reading Micronaut comics. This was before VCRs were common-place, and so the Micronauts -- in a very important way -- represented the only space epic at my fingertips. Through my entire adult life, I've kept those Micronaut comics and in going back and re-reading the adventures, I can't help but suspect that the time has come for a (faithful) movie adaptation. The saga features a distinctive look and style (based on the toys); colorful characters, some great metaphysical mysteries, and an epic, historical sweep.

Hey, if you can make a movie based on Transformers...

Space Knight '79

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 52: Batman "Hot off the Griddle"/"Cat on the Fiddle" (1966-1967)

Hell hath no fury like a Fan Boy scorned (or not taken seriously...), I guess. Although for years (and for a generation...), it was the standard-bearer for comic-book film and TV adaptations, the campy 1966-1968 Batman TV series has fallen into disfavor with superhero fans today; a precipitous fall that coincides, not surprisingly, with the national shift in entertainment preferences from the theatrical and artificial to the naturalistic, gritty and "realistic."

I thought this might be a good time to remember the original Batman TV series of the 1960s since The Dark Knight is bowing in cineplexes shortly, and advance buzz suggests the film is nothing short of a masterpiece. If you gaze at Batman Begins (as well as the upcoming sequel, one supposes), you can detect how the same mythos depicted in the old Batman series has been revamped for an age where demands for increased reality carry such currency and import.

Everything about the (impressive) first Nolan feature suggests a dedicated, even radical attempt to place "the Batman" firmly in a world that audiences can believe thoroughly in. The new Batmobile, for instance, appears more like a modern Hummer than a futuristic hot rod. It's an all-terrain vehicle known as a "Tumbler" and described as an experimental military "bridging" vehicle, one that can jump over rivers (with towing cables) in a combat zone. Similarly, Batman's uniform is a modified "Nomex Survival Suit," another example of experimental military hardware that seems ultra-believable and realistic. Even Batman's amazing fighting abilities have been retconned to reflect his training in the Ninja Arts. I'm not complaining about any of these inventive flourishes; on the contrary, Batman Begins remains one of the best superhero films ever made by my estimation; but it is interesting how it seems to be exclusively a Batman for our War on Terror time.

And ultimately, that's the same reason I have no hate in my heart for the Batman TV series of yesteryear. It is simply a reflection of another time; a superhero production for a (vastly) different age and audience. To expect it to play by today's artistic standards is ridiculous; just as it is ridiculous to expect Nolan's interpretation to live by the 1960s standards. No, it is clear from even a cursory viewing that the 1960s Batman is campy, satirical, colorful, and over-the-top but -- and here's the fact some comic fans won't admit -- not at all disrespectful of the comic-book source, as has often been argued.

For, as the 1950s dawned, Batman as he appeared in DC comics was indeed drifting, nay veering, toward self-parody. How else to explain the appearance of "Bat Hound" in 1955 or Bat-mite in 1959? In fact, one can study the production design of the Batcave for the 1960s TV series and judge just how remarkably faithful it is to the art of Batman comics from that epoch. The anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive labeling of arcane crime-fighting devices (like the "Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City" or "The Bat Analyzer" or "the "Bat Tape Reader,") had clear, obvious antecedents in the comic book; for instance the cover of Batman # 65, which depicted the Dymanic Duo standing in front of assiduously labeled file cabinets that read "Rogue's Gallery" or "Undercover Police Agents."

So it's not totally fair (nor accurate) to demean the Batman TV series of the 1960s as unfaithful to the comic book tradition. On the contrary, the Adam West series is merely reflective of a pre-Dark Knight Returns continuity and style. Again, this is not so stylish or "in" fashion right now; but it was considered very, very hip at the time....even urbane. Also, who can deny the truth as spoken by Batman creator Bob Kane, to star Adam West: that the Batman comic was on the verge of being canceled in 1965...until the ABC series revived interest in the title. There might be no Dark Knight Returns; no Batman Begins, no Dark Knight, without this colorful, pop version of Batman that some fans today dislike so vehemently.

Even the critics of the day found much to laud in the 1960s Batman. Robert Lewis Shayon, writing for Saturday Review (February 12, 1966) suggested that "Historians of culture in the future may well say that television's early attempts at art were smaller-than-life drams of Chayefsky, Nash, Mosel and Foote, but that the medium attained full stature as an art form with the larger-than-life comic, Batman."

The New Yorker agreed, noting that this adaptation of the comic was "sure-footed, full of nifty gadgets and ridiculous costumes, and with at least a couple of lines that could pass for wit on a foggy night" (November, 12, 1966).

The series was a sensation with viewers too. “Batmania" swept the youth culture. In Detroit, a hairdresser invented the “Batcut,” a hip new hairdo, and at a nightclub called Wayne Manor, youths danced "the Batusi" with the Joker as their Maitre’d, while Wonder Woman served drinks. The Federal Communications Commission Chairman at the time, E. William Henry, joined the “bat”-act too, donning a Batman costume to attend a Washington benefit. Series-related merchandise sales totalednearly eighty million dollars in 1966, and because Batman aired twice a week, on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 8:00 pm on ABC, it became the first show in history to hold two spots on the season-end Nielson top ten.

Now, you'll find plenty of Batman faithful who claim that this sixties version of Batman actually mocks their hero by making him a stolid, square figure of total morality and decency. Indeed. And the police in the show, Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp) are utter incompetents to boot! Again, however, one must view this work of "pop art" (that's what producer William Dozier called his series...) in historical context to understand this interpretation of the mythos.

It was a highly turbulent decade in terms of politics. It was the era of the Kennedy Assassination, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights battles, and so forth. The emergence of the counter-culture (which questioned such American pillars as nationalism, respect for elders, respect for the military, and respect for the law enforcement), would not accept (nor admire) a superhero played straight, belonging to a bureacratic system that seemed old and corrupt. The purpose of the 1960s superhero, it seems, was to mock the innocence (or naivete...) and values of the 1950s, and it was here that Batman truly excelled, as parody, as satire, of the square-jawed hero and his ilk. So this Batman was sure to buckle his seat belt while riding in the Batmobile. This Batman was chronically un-hip (like all those people over thirty you shouldn't trust). "I never gamble," he asserted in one episode. "Good City Government is its own reward," he deadpanned in another. "Good grammar is essential," he says to Robin in one episode, and so forth.

The second season two parter "Hot off the Griddle"/"The Cat and the Fiddle" (which aired in September of 1966) reveals this pop-comic in all its counter-culture, colorful 1960s glory. The story involves Catwoman, played by the sexiest woman of the 1960s -- Julie Newmar -- stealing a variety of "cat"-themed objects before Batman and Robin set a trap for her at Gotham's Museum of Natural History.

She double crosses them and then, using Cat Darts, poisons the heroes and and places the unconscious Dynamic Duo on giant hibachi ovens(!), under over-sized magnifying glasses...where they will be burned to a crisp. A combination of calculus and happenstance (a convenient solar eclipse) help Batman and Robin escape this danger from the "Hateful Hussy." It is in this sequence that -- ever self-reflexive -- Robin asks Batman why these cliffhanging traps always threaten them, but never seem to succeed. An in-joke about the structure of the series ("same Bat-time; same Bat-station" and all), this comment acknowledges the absurdity of the format (and of television as an art form to an extent...), but Batman -- about to break the fourth wall -- comments that he and his ward keep surviving because...they have "pure hearts." Uh-huh. Nothing to do with ratings.

This episode is filled with those small, delicious moments that parody the form, and will likely infuriate the modern-minded who want their costumed heroes served up with ABSOLUTE SERIOUSNESS. For instance, on his way to stop Catwoman at the Gotham State Building, Batman pauses to pay the parking meter. "Good citizenship, you know," he says. At another point, Batman looks skyward to see what Catwoman is doing on the roof of the building and his cohorts ask (of the criminals): "Are they birds? Are they planes?..." Again, supremely silly, but that was mission assignment for 1966. And don't even get me started on the visual pun about "turning the tables" on Catwoman at her "front" restaurant, The Pink Sandbox.

A generation (my generation...) grew up with Adam West's Batman and Burt Ward's Robin. As youngsters, the "camp" aspects of the show didn't really register for us, and the series was merely a great adventure featuring noble heroes, colorful villains and the most awesome set of gadgets and vehicles anyone had ever seen. But as adults, we found that this Batman -- played for laughs -- was worth a second look because the series was clever, irreverent, witty and utterly ridiculous. Again, these aren't the virtues of today -- believe me, I get it -- but for Cult TV Flashback 52, I thought this would be a "groovy" remembrance; especially with The Dark Knight rising. You can enjoy this show thoroughly if only you remember it is a product of the 1960s, all right?

Ultimately, there may be as many interpretations of Batman as there have been of Hamlet (or in terms of genre: Dracula). We had pure, straight-faced innocence in the form of Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan's 1943 Batman. We had colorful, over-the-top camp in the Adam West version of the 1960s. We had an "Outsider" vision of Batman in a rotting, post-Reagan urban blight; from Tim Burton's 1989 feature. We even had a fetishist (and gay?) interpretation in Schumacher's 1995 and 1997 franchise entires (Batman Forever and Batman & Robin). Now, we have entered the Age of the Ultra-Real and have Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The characters, situations and locations remain the same, but with each new writer, each new director, each new lead actor, the interpretation of this legend evolves. In forty years, I wonder how the Bat-fans of that time will look at Nolan's work?

I'm curious to see what the next step in this legend will be; even as I find myself humming that memorable theme song (by Neal Hefti) from the Batman I grew up with.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Don't Forget to Vote For The House Between!

Hey! -- Here's your bi-weekly reminder to vote (EVERY! DARN! DAY!...) for The House Between in the Sy Fy 2008 Genre Awards.

You can find the ballot by going to Sy Fy Portal, and clicking on the Twilight Zone-like icon in the upper right-hand part of the frame. And The House Between is nominated in the category for Best Web Production.

Now, another Season Three image coming your way. Not that it will make much sense at this point...

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 78: The Amazing ENERGIZED Spider-Man (Remco; 1978)

From Remco Toys and Marvel Comic Group in 1978 (the days of the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man TV series...), comes this amazing, large-scale figure. This Amazing Spider-Man figure is energized "to climb!" Just "attach the Spider-clamp, turn on Spiderman's energy belt and his web climber goes into action. He climbs doors. Walls. Windows. Fences. Automatically."

But there's more. Spiderman is also energized "to pull! To lift!" Yes, "Spiderman's energized web actually pulls and lifts objects heavier than his own weight." The figure could also "throw light." His "Spider-Light cuts a beam through the night, lighting the way to safety...or to find the enemy!"

This figure was actually part of a very cool Spidey line from Remco. There was also a Spider-copter, and Spidey's powers could "turn the rotor" and also "send out a powerful search beam." Our friendly neighborhood figure also had an enemy in the form of the equally "energized" Green Goblin. Gobs was "energized to cut Spiderman's web" and "power his Goblin ray gun."

Finally -- and also sold separately -- was a nifty Spider-man accessory pack, which came with a Spider Trap, Spider Ray Gun, and a rocket camera; all of which could be attached to Spiderman's energy belt.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Movie Poster of the Week

The League of Tana Tea Drinkers

Just this week, I happily accepted an invitation to join a fantastic community of bloggers called The League of Tana Tea Drinkers (hence the logo; left). The League's mission statement is one I heartily approve and support:

" acknowledge, foster, and support thoughtful, articulate, and creative blogs built on an appreciation of the horror and sci-horror genre."

Among other things, membership in the League means that I'll sometimes be blogging on "unity" subjects with the other Tana Tea Drinkers (and there's some neat stuff ahead, I can already tell you...).

I am truly honored to be a part of this impressive community, and hope that you will enjoy my contributions there, and also regularly check out what the other League members are blogging about.