Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Murder and Math

The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of Rene Decartes.
Novel by Andrew Pessin.
Book Review by Kerey McKenna.

“The first [principle] was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.” –Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

Seventeenth century intellectual Rene Descartes was a nerd’s nerd. And by that I mean he was the father of modern western thought, responsible for historic leaps in mathematics, science, and philosophy, from mathematical mainstays like the four quadrant grid, to the Cartesian mind/body dualism that paved the way for virtual realities like The Matrix and Ready Player One.

Descartes survived military service in the tumultuous Thirty Years War and lived to the ripe old age of fifty-three (remember, the average life expectancy was about forty back then). He ended his life as an adviser to the Swedish crown, beloved by all.

Well, perhaps not all. Perhaps he was murdered by one of his many enemies!

Yes, whether Rene Descartes succumbed to a) natural causes, b) complications from Three Musketeer-era medicine, or c) assassination by poison has been a point of contention among scholars for centuries and is now the subject of a new mystery novel, The Irrationalist, by Andrew Pessin.

In his first work of historical fiction, Pessin spins a tale of a troubled childhood, the trials and travails of the “greatest mind of the age,” and the mysteries surrounding his death in Stockholm in 1650.

When not following the doomed man himself, the narrative is from the perspective of Adrien Baillet, a young and inexperienced French Jesuit, dispatched by the powers that be to confirm that Descartes, a son of Catholic France, had not met with foul play in Protestant Sweden.

Did some rogue Protestant members of the Swedish court fear Descartes was on a mission to convert their monarch, Queen Christina, to Catholicism? Did his doctor keep on recommending bloodletting because of the medical limitations of the day or because he had reasons to make sure Descartes never left the sick bed. And why were two known enemies of Descartes, a disgruntled, estranged brother and a jealous mathematical rival stalking the streets of Stockholm looking to catch Descartes by surprise? The court librarian believes that Descartes was a member of one of Europe's secret societies, The Rosicrucians. He spins tales of plots and counterplots so outlandish that Adrian can only smile and nod politely, as you or I would if approached by a stranger on the street who explains to us that JFK was assassinated by Bigfoot. But maybe the librarian’s conspiracy theories aren’t as outlandish as they seem…

The death of such a luminary might endanger the tenuous peace between the two nations and as Adrien digs for the truth he starts to feel the pressure mount to drop the case. To the Swedes he is annoyance, while the French just want him to rubberstamp the official cause of death and come home. But like Descartes, the amateur detective is determined to set aside his presumptions and seek the ultimate truth.

I’m not sure if I can go into much more detail without giving away the mystery or the joy of meeting the characters and the history involved, but I had a lot of fun with The Irrationalist. It works great as historical fiction, giving a real sense of the time with a murder mystery as a great hook to pull the reader through the biography of one of the West's great thinkers. One doesn’t need to be overly familiar with Descartes’ work or the era because everything is laid out so well. I was also pleased that this wasn’t a mystery in the beach read tradition of The Da Vinci Code or the cheesy pulp tradition of National Treasure, where we find out the great thinkers of history spent their days hiding Easter eggs in art and monuments to set up a treasure hunt centuries later.

So if you’d like to learn a bit more about a figure key to western thought and want a good murder mystery while you do it than I would highly recommend The Irrationalist.

P.S. Full Disclosure: I had the pleasure of taking some philosophy courses from Andrew Pessin at Connecticut College (Go Camels!), back when I was a member of the Class of...I’m feeling old.

P.P.S. For more seventeenth century adventure, this time with time-traveling Americans gumming up the works, check out Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series. See a review of the first installment, 1632, here on Nerds Who Read.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!

Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes.
Written by Tim Seeley & David Walker, with art by Fernando Dagnino & Sandra Molina.
Comic Book Review by Kerey McKenna.

Like a lot of moviegoers this past weekend, I went bananas for War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment of the rebooted Planet of the Apes series starring Andy Serkis as the leader of a tribe of sentient apes destined to take over the world and eclipse mankind.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this series of movies, the first installment being a sci-fi “mad science gone wrong” thriller and “animal revenge” porn and the last two installments a riff on post-apocalyptic survivalism, but with the narrative weight placed with non-humans as the ragtag group of survivors.

To honor the series I was going to review La Planète des Singes (Planet of the Monkeys), the French novel that inspired the original 1968 and 1970 Charlton Heston films, but...well that would just be a film to book comparison and I don’t think there is anything in the book that wasn’t done in those movies or even the Tim Burton-helmed remake.

But do you know who hasn’t made it into any of the Planet of the Apes movies?...TARZAN!

Yeah, Tarzan! If apes rule the planet...could Tarzan do one better and rule the apes?

This is one of those bonkers inter-continuity mash-ups that happen when comic book rights fall into the same publishing house and the writers and artists feel compelled to make their new toys play together.

I say “mash-up,” rather than “crossover,” because to me, a crossover is a rather straightforward side effect of a shared universe—like when two or more Marvel superhero vigilantes meet each other in NYC—or narratives with enough shared ground they might as well exist in the same universe—like when NBC’s police procedural Law & Order, based in NYC, found itself tangled up in a case leading to Baltimore, the jurisdiction of Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Mash-up implies you are taking characters, settings, and/or genres that don’t seem like a natural fit, banging them together, and seeing what you get. Take for example the most recent King Kong movie, Kong: Skull Island, which took a giant monster movie and mashed it up with a Vietnam movie…and it worked!

But that’s a different ape and a different jungle. Getting back to Tarzan and Planet of the Apes...

Planet of the Apes posits that chimpanzees and the other non-human great apes might one day develop into their own society of urban dwelling intellectuals while humans revert to a feral state. Tarzan posits that a human removed from civilization would have to be feral and have to survive by wits as well as brawn, but the result would be something more than animal but different than “A Man.”

So how do we get Tarzan and the Apes together to settle the matter?

The jumping off point is the moment in the classic apes series when Charlton Heston’s character blows up the earth with a leftover doomsday weapon that was hidden Beneath the Planet of the Apes. That was Heston the actor using his clout in an attempt to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more of these silly movies. But the studio wanted more so they did the time warp and we got Escape from the Planet of the Apes. I will let the movie's original trailer speak for itself:

In our comic, instead of time traveling back to 1970’s America, two talking chimpanzees from the first movie, Cornelius and Zira, crash land their spaceship in Nineteenth Century Africa...arriving just in time to raise a human foundling child, Tarzan, as an adoptive brother to their own child Caesar.

While they’re in nurture mode, the chimpanzees from the future go about spreading their knowledge to the native apes: how to speak English, how to build really awesome tree forts. But the ascending apes soon come into conflict with colonialist invaders who want to capture them to use as slave labor. So we get some really awesome action scenes of Tarzan and Caesar fighting off great white hunters and slavers.

To embed Caesar and Tarzan in this war reveals parallels between the Tarzan narrative and the Planet narrative that go deeper than “they both have apes”. Both deal with the nature of “savagery” and “civilization,” and how little distance actually lies between the two. Our dual protagonists, Caesar and Tarzan, are both amalgams of savagery and civility. Their foes meanwhile, the human invaders, commit savage atrocities in the name of spreading “Civilization” to the wilderness.

Then things get really bizarre: the book embraces two of the strangest ideas of their respective franchises, the time travel of the Planet of the Apes movies and the Hollow Earth of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp novels. Any continuing ruminations and capacities for savagery or nobility in apes and humans are continually eclipsed by ever more outlandish sci-fi pulp action set pieces.

We find the apes’ time-traveling ship has ripped holes in the space-time continuum, allowing strange creatures to escape from Hollow Earth. So now we get to see Tarzan and Caesar fight DINOSAURS. A battle that is the first for the Apes series but actually not unheard of in Tarzan’s adventures.

So instead of continuing with a conflict that speaks to a primal theme in both works, we get this scene of savage pulp action. Not content to pick one conflict or central idea, the book keeps digging even further into the lore of both Edgar Rice Burroughs and the original Apes movies with time travel paradoxes and trips to the hollow earth and killer telepathic mutants. Two kinds of telepathic mutants to be specific, one type from each franchise. The book gets so cluttered that by its third act it is introducing new fantastical factions and locations faster than anything really gets a chance to make an impact.

By the end, the whole thing is a big pulpy mess...like a juice bar run by a dozen chimps. But on the one hand, that does sound kind of fun; there are times this book is definitely a fun read. And I can’t say with a straight face that the creators should have shown narrative restraint in such an august project as Tarzan on The Planet of the Apes. The creative team can be accused of excess but never of negligence. Even though the ever escalating action is narratively and thematically jumbled, the artwork is well-crafted and the action scenes strike a balance between a lot happening and keeping track of the action and characters.

The writers, while stronger in the earlier chapters of the series, do try valiantly to weave all this chaos back into the theme of “civilization vs. savagery.” But I think they had too many rings running in the circus to coherently make the point.

If you can appreciate the fun of trying to team these two series up, and you consider yourself a fan of the jungle pop genre or a completist for either franchise, then this might be worth a look. Tarzan fans can tell you about the times Tarzan fought Nazis; Apes fans can tell you about the time the Apes were defeated by a hip hop star from Boston. These are fan bases that are used to the bizarre. But even for them, I can promise that this series will stand out as something unique.

I can also promise that this isn’t the worst Planet of the Apes cash-in imaginable.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Climbing the Walls Part II: Other Web Slingers of Marvel

by Kerey McKenna.

Spiderman: Homecoming opened to a well-deserved first place at the box office last weekend. It's fun and I would certainly recommend it for some light summer entertainment.

As I noted in Part I of "Climbing the Walls," Peter Parker isn’t the only person to take on the great responsibility of donning a spider mask. Over the years, there have been female versions of the character (Jessica Drew: Spiderwoman, May Day Parker: Spider-Girl), Peter Parker clones (Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider), former adversaries turned to good (Doctor Otto Octavius: The Superior Spiderman), and even a Japanese Spiderman (Takuya Yamashiro: Supaidāman). In this part I wrap things up with two alternative spiders that are relatively new to the scene. Both have monthly comics still in print: Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen.

Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spiderman

In the early aughts Marvel created the “Ultimate line of comics” that would re-introduce flagship characters like Spiderman, the X-men, and the Avengers (re-dubbed the Ultimates) to a new, contemporary continuity less bogged down in decades of backstory. And because the Ultimate line wasn’t replacing the regular line and continuity, creative teams were encouraged to try new spins on classic characters in appearance, temperament, and origin.

Also, because there was greater creative liberty and the emphasis was on keeping the continuity streamlined (a losing battle, but they tried valiantly), death in the ultimate universe tended to be more permanent than in regular Marvel Books. So in 2011, Ultimate Spiderman Peter Parker was killed in action defending New York City.

Manhattan is apparently full of labs haphazardly irradiating spiders, because a new teen answers the call: Miles Morales. Of Afro-Caribbean American descent, Miles was able to put contemporary spin on life as a teen in metropolitan NYC.

Initially, the premise drew controversy from the portion of the fan base averse to change and willing to sacrifice at least two spider babies to preserve Spiderman as an eternal twentysomething. They were joined by culture commentators, many of whom hadn’t picked up a comic in years, or ever. The culture commentators assumed that a minority character taking up the mantle of a traditional white male protagonist is part of a sinister plot to do...something. Honestly that whole can of worms is probably a column in and of itself but suffice it to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with the “I’m not racist but...there can’t be a black spider-man” op-eds. The job for irrational hatred of Spiderman is filled quite ably by J. Jonah Jameson thank you very much...

The Ultimate Universe has run its course. Its role as the streamlined version of Marvel’s characters has been taken over by (more profitable) movie and TV projects. Yet despite the backlash from the culture critics, Miles has won over enough of the fan base that he is one of the few surviving legacies of Ultimate, long after it was discontinued.

Now that Miles occupies the same universe and NYC as a grown-up Peter Parker, Marvel might finally be able to strike a balance between teenage Spiderman stories and stories of a spiderman that is growing up and assuming more adult responsibilities. Previously Peter has been ping ponged between the two. I say let Peter Parker stay grown up (at least outside the movies) and leave the high school drama to Miles Morales and his new circle of friends, allies, and enemies.

Gwen Stacy: Spider-Gwen

Second only to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben, the tragedy of Gwen Stacy weighs heavily on Peter Parker’s conscience. Daughter of police chief Stacy, Gwen was a close friend of Peter and a rival to Mary Jane Watson for his affections. The love triangle came to a sudden and tragic end when Spiderman’s enemy the Green Goblin held Gwen hostage on top of the George Washington Bridge, threw her off, and Spiderman was unable to rescue her.

This death hung over Spiderman and his franchise for decades. Comics have teased at Gwen Stacy clones, or long lost children and mysterious resurrections. When Sam Raimi brought Spiderman to the big screen, he sent chills down the spines of long term fans by placing Mary Jane in the same precarious standoff at the bridge. Although Spiderman 3 introduced Gwen to moviegoers, The Amazing Spider-Man reboot movies went through with her death, surprising almost no one, and carrying almost no narrative weight.

But what if the script was flipped? What if Gwen Stacy was the friendly neighborhood webslinger and her friend Peter Parker was the Martyr?

In the Spider-Gwen universe, it is teenage Gwen Stacy who is bitten by the radioactive spider that fateful day, becoming “The Amazing Spider-Woman,” and Peter Parker who dies as a result of his ties to her super-heroics. Originally created as a one-off side character for the Spider-verse event, Spider-Gwen became a fan favorite and has been given her own regular series and fairly regular visits back into the mainstream Marvel Universe.

I get a kick out of Spider-Gwen because it’s constantly playing with the Marvel universe. Beyond who wound up with spider powers, Spider-Gwen’s alternate world isn’t a simple gender flipped or “evil” version of the Marvel universe. Its zigs and zags between similarity and difference are constantly playing with the readers’ expectations. Instead of the protector of Hell’s Kitchen, blind lawyer Matt “Daredevil” Murdock is its crime lord, the Kingpin. Yet Foggy Nelson, whom Marvel audiences would know as Matt’s partner, is still the same character: an honest attorney. Frank Castle still seeks to punish criminals but does so as a loose-cannon cop instead of a vigilante loosing cannon fire into the streets.

And Gwen herself is given a distinct identity beyond “Peter’s girlfriend who died tragically.” She’s part of an all-girl rock band with Mary Jane Watson. Although she doesn’t have the hard science chops of Peter or Miles, growing up as the daughter of a cop has given her insight into investigative skills and police procedure. Gwen’s “active wear” and different color palette are a distinctive twist on the spider costume that seems to be resonating with fans better than May Day Parker’s (which was a contemporary 90’s Spiderman costume but “filled out” in certain places).

 

So that’s my list, far from exhaustive, of other characters to spin a web of any size or capture crooks just like flies. Congratulations to Tom Holland and the Homecoming Team, but if ten years down the road, the powers that be at Marvel, Disney, and Sony decide they need another reboot, maybe they should keep one of these versions in mind.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Note: all art used belongs to its respective owners.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Climbing the Walls: Other Web Slingers of Marvel

by Kerey McKenna.

Peter Parker has been swinging from web lines since 1962. With Spiderman: Homecoming, Tom Holland returns as our third big screen iteration of Peter. 2001’s Sam Raimi-helmed movie starring Tobey MaGuire helped launch the millennial superhero boom and James Garfield admirably tried to recharge the franchise in two films that failed to launch a Spider-centric universe for Sony.

But Peter Parker isn’t the only person to take on the great responsibility of donning a spider mask over the years, at least in the comics. Heck, back in 2014, Marvel even had a great big event comic called “The Spider-verse,” consisting of a crossover of the alternative versions of Peter Parker and other webslingers readers had seen pop up over the years; others were created especially for the event. Now, alternative versions of Peter Parker would be a whole article in and of itself and be full of entries like Zombie Peter Parker, Film Noir Peter Parker, Peter Porker the Spider-ham, and so on ad infinitum. But since Spiderman: Homecoming is already giving us the latest version of Peter Parker, I thought it would be fun to share with you some notable characters other than Peter Parker to spin webs. And I mean other than Peter Parker. No alternate universe doppelgangers.

Jessica Drew: Spiderwoman

Premiering in 1978, Spiderwoman was Marvel Comics attempt to stake a claim on the name “Spiderwoman” so other publishers couldn’t try to ride the coattails of its breakout character.

Feeling that female sidekicks of popular male characters had already been done to death over at DC with Supergirl, Batgirl, and Mary Marvel, the editors didn’t want this new character to be tied down to the Peter Parker Spiderman. Her costume is very distinct from his, her spider powers have a different origin, and instead of street crime in one city she tended to be a globetrotting espionage agent, even working with SHIELD to thwart the machinations of HYDRA (And for more about the history of Hydra and how they bent Captain America to their will, check out my post Captain America: Hail Who?)

Given no directive but to publish books every once in a while to protect the copyright, she benefited from a sort of benign neglect allowing some of Marvel’s greatest creators the narrative freedom to tell some really out there but exciting stories.

Takuya Yamashiro: Supaidāman

Supaidāman, or Japanese Spiderman, is an interesting example of cross-cultural exchange between the USA and Japan. Produced for Japanese television entirely for a Japanese market and sensibilities, it’s fascinating to see what was translated directly from the original American version and what was added for the adaption. His suit and iconic theme song translate very well. Although his secret identity is motorsport athlete Takuya Yamashiro instead of scientist/photojournalist Peter Parker, Takuya resembles Peter in his struggle with the complications of upholding the responsibilities of both his mild-mannered alter ego and his superhero persona.

However the series makes additions to the mythos that seem very out of place to an American viewer. Instead of the Sinister Six, Supaidaman’s main antagonist is the “Iron Cross Army,” and our hero has custom vehicles like a motorcycle, car, and giant robot (none of which really have spider iconography in their designs). Why does Supaidāman need a giant robot? To fight giant Godzilla-sized monsters of course. These are a lot of conventions of Japanese superheroes that the US didn’t become familiar with until footage from a long running series was harvested to create Power Rangers for the western market in the 90’s.

Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider

Okay, I said no alternate universe doppelgangers of Peter Parker. But I didn’t say anything about clones now, did I?

The Scarlet Spider was the product of a mid-90’s Spider-Man “Clone Saga” arc that got out of hand. In an earlier classic Spiderman tale, a mad scientist created a clone of Spiderman who battled Peter to a standstill before joining the side of the angels but seemingly perished when the scientist’s lab collapsed on itself. But what if the clone didn’t die?!

The Clone Saga posited that he survived and had Peter's memories implanted into him, and therefore Peter’s sense of responsibility to protect New York City. Creating the civilian identity Ben Reilly (naming himself after his beloved Uncle Ben and adopting his mother’s maiden name), he swung through Manhattan as “The Scarlet Spider.”

The original idea for the clone saga had a lot going for it, and the original plan for the endgame was that Ben Reilly would take up the mantle of Spiderman, allowing Peter Parker to retire and settle down with Mary Jane, who was pregnant with their child at the time. But when the concept started selling through the roof, the writers were given editorial mandates to keep stretching it out. Furthermore, a rotating creative team on the Spiderman books couldn’t seem to make up its mind if Ben would assume the title of Spider-man or not. Or if Ben Reilly was actually the original Peter Parker returning to take back his life from the well-meaning clone. The whole thing became a convoluted mess.

Eventually the clone saga came to an end with no major changes to the status quo. In fact, narratively the restoration of normalcy was quite brutal, with the clone dying and MJ miscarrying her child.

The Scarlet Spider costume is one of my favorite of the 90’s-style redesigns. Doing away with the intricate black webbing probably saved the artists a lot of time and I think if the 90’s style (hey give them a jacket or a hoodie) aesthetic is going to work on anyone it would be a “street level” superhero like Spiderman. I also believe Peter Parker’s first homemade suit in the films Captain America: Civil War and Spider-man: Homecoming owes a debt to the Scarlet Spider.

May “May Day” Parker: Spider-Girl

Okay, remember when I said Mary Jane Watson was pregnant with Spiderman’s child in the 90’s? Well what if the resolution to that hadn’t been a huge backpedal that just left everybody back at square one?!

Spider-Girl posits that the writers’ original intention won out and Spiderman retired from superheroics to settle down with Mary Jane and raise their daughter May “May Day” Parker, seemingly an average girl until she reaches sixteen and develops spider powers of her own. Against the initial wishes of her father, May takes up his web-spinners and becomes “The Amazing Spider-girl”

Unlike other properties that imagined the successors of their hero in some post-apocalyptic wasteland or Blade Runner-inspired urban dystopia like DC’s Batman Beyond or Marvel’s own Spiderman 2099, the Spider-Girl series wasn’t interested in making a cyberpunk reimagining of their character and didn’t try to visually distinguish the far-distant early 2010’s from the late 90’s. As I write this in 2017, it’s clear that the creators were quite forward-thinking not to assume we’d be dressing like the Jetsons.

Spider-Girl took the drama of the spider saga back to high school, this time through the lens of a character not driven by personal tragedy, but by the desire to uphold the family legacy. And it allowed the characters of Peter Parker and MJ to mature as people and take their marriage to a logical next step, something subsequent Spiderman creative teams were so afraid of they notoriously...ahem...HAD SPIDERMAN MAKE A DEAL WITH THE LITERAL DEVIL TO ERASE THE PARKER/WATSON MARRIAGE AND ANY RESULTING CHILDREN FROM CONTINUITY.

Doctor Otto Octavius: The Superior Spiderman

What Doctor Otto Octavius? As in Doctor Octopus? One of Spiderman’s most iconic enemies, how could he be Spiderman? Is this another crazy “what if?” story from a parallel universe or dream sequence?

Surprisingly, no. But the story is still pretty crazy. In 2013 Otto Octavius pulls off his greatest crime yet, a body swap, stealing Peter Parker’s body, memories, and identity and leaving Peter’s mind in his own elderly, decrepit, and dying form. Like a malicious Freaky Friday. But as the transfer becomes final, and Spiderman dies in Dr. Octopus’s body, something amazing happens: Otto, accessing Peter Parker’s memories, finally understands why Spiderman was always foiling his plans over the years. He decides that with his “Powers” must come the “Responsibility” to become the best Spiderman possible, a Superior Spiderman.

It’s a bonkers premise and eventually the status quo is restored but it was a fun ride while it lasted. Doctor Octopus's attempts are at turns reasonable (going back to school to get Peter a doctorate) and at other turns clearly the thinking of a megalomaniac mad scientist (creating a swarm of spider robot drones to keep constant surveillance on NYC).

The villain and hero body swap is a stock plot device for an episode in a sci-fi action adventure series, but the Superior Spider-man arc gave the premise much more than a single episode to explore some of the potential of the premise. What happens when a super villain tries to turn over a new leaf? Does Spiderman still work as a character if he’s an arrogant tech millionaire like Iron Man, or for that matter, a ruthless proactive vigilante like Batman?

Eventually the status quo was restored but not before Otto had burned some bridges and also, perhaps, opened some doors for Spiderman and Peter Parker to develop and mature. With his new doctorate and proof-of-concept that he can do more with his mechanical skills than keep his web shooters in working order, Peter founds a tech start up and finally gets out of the struggling photo-journalist rut. And he can put those resources to good use helping a rookie friendly neighborhood spiderman.

More about that in Part II.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Note: all art used belongs to its respective owners.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Captain America: Hail Who? Part II

by Kerey McKenna.

In Part I, I wrote that contrary to what you’ve seen in the headlines, Steve Rogers, Captain America, was never a sleeper agent for the organization of Marvel villains known as Hydra. He just thinks he is, thanks to his memory having been tampered with. Some readers have taken to calling the brainwashed and power mad corruption of Steve “Hydra Cap.” But Hydra is chock full of Nazis—Baron von Strucker, Baron Zemo, the Red Skull—and that brings us to another question…

Is Hydra Cap also Nazi Cap?

Hydra Cap believes that fascism is the logical means to bring safety and security to the world. But as for whether he believes in Nazism as well as fascism, I’m going to say no. He considers himself to be part of “True Hydra,” an ancient secret society that is fascistic in nature but does not discriminate based on race, nationality, and religion. While Steve believes that he and the Nazi Red Skull have both been serving Hydra for decades, they are still enemies. Crazy Hydra-brainwashed Steve is certain the Red Skull is a heretic.

Our Story so Far

The Hydra Cap story line has expanded from a Captain America tale to a Marvel Universe epic, "Secret Empire," in which brainwashed Rogers traded upon his irreproachable image of American idealism to call heroes into his cabal and consolidate power, eventually openly declaring his allegiance to a new fascist order for America. As a tent pole crossover event it has mined narrative possibilities that played well in previous crossovers “Civil War” (2006-2007, later adapted into the 2016 Civil War movie) and “Secret Invasion” (2008).

Just as “Civil War” divided Marvel heroes into factions, pitting former allies against each other, this new scenario again calls for heroes to rally to or reject Steve Rogers as their leader. And just as “Secret Invasion” had the heroes looking over their shoulders, unsure who they could trust amid a massive infiltration of their ranks by shape-shifting aliens, now they’ve been rendered equally paranoid by the legions of Hydra agents in their midst.

With America under the heel of Hydra Cap’s “Secret Empire,” a resistance of heroes has formed to fight the coup. The resistance even has its own Captain America, Sam Wilson—the Falcon—a former ally of Steve’s who had previously taken up Captain America’s vibranium shield in 2010 when Steve had to step aside temporarily due to illness.

So what’s next?

It’s hard to say. “Secret Empire” is still playing out through Marvel Comics monthly issues and like most crossovers it weaves the narrative through a rabbit’s warren designed to sell as many comic books as possible.

When Steve was restored to health in 2016, the stated plan (in story and at Marvel) was that both Steve and Sam would carry on as Captain America. But then Steve’s first issue back in action revealed his change of allegiance. Assuming Steve Rogers is defeated and brought to his senses, but loses the public trust, it stands to reason that Sam will remain standing as the only Captain America—assuming he survives. Of course, there’s the possibility that Steve won’t come out of it alive either: a persistent thread of the story is that he is prophesied to fall in battle. But even if the event ends in his “death” nobody expects it to stick.

Did Marvel go too far?

In the world of comics, death is cheap. Thanks to a deluge of high profile character deaths and resurrections, beginning with Superman in 1992, a jaded readership doesn’t expect dead characters ever to stay dead. Steve Rogers already “died” once, at the end of Civil War, and was replaced by his old sidekick Bucky Barnes, but was then resurrected in time for the 2011 Captain America movie.

If putting a hero in the ground doesn’t sell comics anymore, the writers have to resort to other measures, like dragging him through the mud. The “Face-Heel Turn”—a hero turning into a heel—is an overused cliché, both in professional wrestling (where the term originated) and in comic books. But perhaps this one was so shocking, Marvel was right to deploy it.

It seems to have worked. Marvel has been getting a lot of press because they get to release lots of shocking headlines in slow drip about new turns of the narrative. But not without controversy.

Critics argue that Marvel has crossed a line: that for the sake of shock value, Marvel irreparably tainted an American Icon. Captain America was created in 1940 by two Jewish Americans who had desperate desire for the United States to get into the war against Nazism. In view of that, many feel Cap should not be twisted into a fascist. Furthermore, by accident or design, Marvel is amplifying the anxieties of an America where Left and Right are constantly accusing each other of a nefarious plot to take over America from within, and extremists of all manner are coming out of the woodwork. With trust in the institutions of America shaken, our mythical heroes should be beyond reproach.

The critics also say Marvel can’t have it both ways: Hydra can’t be the heirs of Nazi Germany and still be a mere caricature of villainy, safe for children’s play time.

Even the name “Secret Empire,” while presumably chosen to tie the event thematically with other famous Marvel crossovers, “Secret Wars” (1984), “Secret Invasion” (2008), and “Secret Wars 2” (2015), may not be so innocent after all. As the real-world KKK dubbed itself “The Invisible Empire”, so a “Secret Empire” has very sinister connotations for those familiar with white supremacy and domestic terrorism here in the U.S.

I’m not going to say here and now whether this story works; I will reserve judgment until it reaches its conclusion.

But I will say that this whole thing has made me start examining the almost too casual and familiar way visual works like films and comics have been invoking the trappings of Nazism—its symbols, its pageantry, its fabricated lore—without putting much thought into the horrors that it brought, the ideologies and historical forces that made it possible, and how to inoculate a culture against it.

I will also add this: I won’t be buying any of Marvel’s Hydra branded merchandise. Actually any merchandise with skulls on it. Not for a while. Yeah that’s probably going to be my SOP. No skulls. I mean, seriously. Why skulls?

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Captain America: Hail Who? Part I

by Kerey McKenna.

About a year ago, Marvel Comics ended Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 on one hell of a cliffhanger: the title character, the Sentinel of Liberty, the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan, the very symbol of American idealism, Captain America himself betrays an ally and declares his loyalty...TO HYDRA!

Now, a year later, the story line is coming to fruition in the form of Marvel's 2017 summer mega crossover event, “Secret Empire.” In it, Rogers uses his position as Captain America to bring the U.S. into the grip of the fascist cabal that he had fought for so many years.

So why is Steve Rogers betraying liberty for fascism, and why is this whole idea threatening to blow up in Marvel’s face?

Good questions, but first things first...

What is Hydra?

First appearing in Marvel Comics in 1965, Hydra is the go-to evil organization of the Marvel universe, an international cabal of “nogoodniks” with their tentacles in government and commerce through a vast network of fanatical secret agents and loyal cannon fodder. It bears a strong resemblance to SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion), the collection of James Bond villains that Ian Fleming introduced into his novels four years earlier. If Fleming or his lawyers had ever picked up a comic book and compared the logos of the two organizations, they might have taken Marvel to the cleaners.

In the 1960’s espionage adventures of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, Hydra served the same antagonistic narrative function as SPECTRE in Bond: a group of apolitical villains for the hero to thwart.

The Marvel version had saboteurs and double agents, who when discovered by the heroes would declare with fanatical zeal, “Hail Hydra! Cut off one head, two more shall take its place!,” before biting down on a poison capsule.

Hydra had elaborate secret facilities, doomsday weapons, and legions of disposable henchman willing to throw themselves at Marvel’s greatest heroes.

Like SPECTRE before it or COBRA after, Hydra was staffed with every sort of stock villain: saboteurs, corrupt captains of industry, political cronies, ninjas, robots, and exotic femmes fatales. And although it had predated the Third Reich by millenia, it had its share of central-casting Germans evildoers. Like Baron von Strucker...with his monocle and Heidelberg fencing scars:

Or Baron Zemo with his love of...Germanic Runes:

Or the Red Skull…who is the Death’s Head sigil from the SS uniform, fond of swanning around in a bespoke Gestapo style leather coat:

Yes, like Argentina and Brazil after 1946, Hydra had Nazis.

Which for Marvel's classic action pulps made perfect sense. Hydra is an organization dedicated to evil, Nazis are evil, and therefore if they have Nazis in their organization they must be pretty dang evil. Indeed, other franchises discovered the benefits of tying their baddies to a real-life horrible regime as well. After all, what did “The Empire” of Star Wars look like, if not “Nazis in Spaaaace?”

As Marvel lore grew over decades of comics, and Marvel wanted to spread its stories to TV and film, Hydra had another advantage over actual Nazis: it avoided complications from laws in some countries that highly restrict the use of Nazi symbols for entertainment or merchandising.

It was in movies and TV that Marvel was able to realize the full narrative benefits of creating a chain of villainy from WWII into the present era, first in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier and then in the companion TV series Agents of SHIELD. It was revealed that the fascist splinter group everyone assumed Captain America had thwarted in the 40’s was roaring back with a vengeance into the new millennium. Enemy scientists captured by America at the end of WWII infested the military complex that they were meant to serve and twisted it to their own ends. Eventually, our brave heroes didn’t know who they could trust among their allies or in the government because anyone could secretly be a Hydra agent.

So is Steve really Hydra now?

Good news, everybody. Steve Rogers is not Hydra after all! Never was. He just thought he was and acted with all the determination and moral certainty that makes him such a good hero.

As the story arc plays out, we discover that Steve’s memories have been manipulated. His archenemy, the actual professed Nazi and white supremacist, the Red Skull, convinced him that they were on the same side all along.

The actual mechanics of how this happened are another rabbit hole. The short version is that the Red Skull made a wish that Captain America serve Hydra. Let a reality-warping magical being worry about the nitty gritty.

Okay. Steve only thinks he's Hydra. But does he think he's a Nazi? And is any of this good for Marvel?

For the answers to these questions, see Part II of "Captain America: Hail Who?," here on Nerds who Read.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Friday, June 2, 2017

She is Wonder Woman: Hear her Roar!

Movie Review by Michael Isenberg.

Sorry about the title. My friend Kerey committed me to it in his Introduction to Wonder Woman here on Nerds who Read. He told the whole world that if the movie was good, that was what I was going to call my review. If it wasn’t, the title was going to be “Blunder Woman.”

So obviously it was good. In fact, it was awesome. Which disproves two beliefs that I've held for some time: 1) that Hollywood can’t make a good movie with a female superhero, and 2) that DC Comics can’t make a good movie with any kind of superhero.

Over the years, legions of female superhero movies have bombed at the box office. Conventional wisdom in Hollywood was that female superheroes just didn’t sell. Brainy pundits put their intellectual heft behind various theories as to why not; the theories ran the gamut from sexism to sexism. Apparently the audiences were sexist for not going to these movies. But IMHO, the reason the audiences stayed away was because these movies just weren't very good. And that wasn't because the audiences were sexist. It's because the writers were.

They insisted on giving their female heroines what they perceived as female missions: Supergirl (1984) fought a witch. Elektra (2005) babysat. Catwoman (2004) took on an evil manufacturer of cosmetics. It was as if Hollywood were telling women, “Stick to girly things, even if you have superpowers.” I remember the 1976 pilot of the TV show The Bionic Woman, when the title character used her cybernetic implants to help with the cooking. There was a discussion about it in English class the next day, and the teacher, a woman’s libber (as feminists were called in those days) who once gave us an assignment to write letters to companies protesting sexism in advertising, visibly cringed.

Indeed, it’s difficult to discuss female superheroes without getting into feminism and sexism. On the surface, one would expect feminists to embrace strong female characters who defy conventional gender roles. But these characters are usually insanely hot women in impractically revealing costumes (the superheroines, I mean. Not the feminists). If you've read my novel, Full Asylum, then you know I like insanely hot women in impractically revealing costumes. They're fun. But some feminists see it as objectification of women. For example, last year, when the UN named Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot as its Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, the decision was met with a firestorm of protest. A petition, signed by 44,000 people, complained that, “Although the original creators may have intended Wonder Woman to represent a strong and independent warrior woman with a feminist message, the reality is that the character's current iteration is that of a large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee high boots --the epitome of a pin-up girl.” (They say that like it’s a bad thing :-) ) To complicate matters, Gal Gadot is from Israel, a country not exactly popular with the globalist crowd that hangs out at 1st Avenue and 42nd Street. Within two months of beginning her assignment, the UN fired her.

Suffice to say, to make a movie in this genre is a hazardous endeavor, rife with pitfalls. Filmmakers must contend with producers skeptical about seeing a return on their investment and leftists eager to pounce on any misstep. Surprisingly, it’s DC Comics who figured out the formula for success.

I say surprisingly because ever since 2005’s Batman Begins, DC movies have been positively grim. They forgot to make them fun. The lone exception was last year’s Suicide Squad. It was fun. It sucked in every other respect, but it was fun.

With Wonder Woman, however, DC got it right. It's very simple: The secret to making a good female superhero movie is to make a good superhero movie. Which means a well-constructed plot, great characters, memorable lines, a mission worthy of the heroine’s powers, and fun.

Wonder Woman nailed it in every category.

The movie starts with her origins, and in this the writers stuck closely to the well-known source material, which Kerey covered in his primer. Born and raised on the Amazon island of Themyscira, Diana’s life changes when an American Military Intelligence officer, Steve Trevor, washes up on one of the island’s beautiful white sand beaches. Albeit in the case of this movie, he doesn’t so much wash up as is dragged up by Diana, after his plane bursts through Themyscira’s cloaking shield and plunges into the ocean. Diana then rescues him from the watery depths. Safely on the beach, he finally comes to and sees Diana looking down at him, with a face without pain, fear, or guilt. So basically it’s the Dagny Taggart meets John Galt scene in Atlas Shrugged, with the genders reversed. And wet clothes.

Steve is reluctant to reveal his mission, but when the Amazons bind him with the Lasso of Truth, he spills everything. Beyond the shores of Themyscira, the world is at war. World War I, to be precise. Steve has just learned that Germany plans to deploy a horrific chemical weapon. He was on his way to England to warn the Allies when enemy aircraft shot him down. Diana is convinced that the Amazons’ nemesis Ares, God of War, is behind this global conflict. The only way to bring peace to the planet is to kill him. Thus she has a mission that’s worthy of her: nothing less than ending the War to End All Wars. And while that’s not exactly Steve’s mission (he thinks a little smaller and is understandably skeptical of the whole God of War angle), their missions are parallel and so they sail off to England together on a rickety old ship that just happens to be sitting around tied up to a Themysciran wharf.

What follows is one part Splash, as Diana adapts to the “modern” world of 1918, and three parts Captain America as our heroine leads a DC version of Cap’s Howling Commandos into combat. That’s a little weird actually, because supposedly one of the reasons for switching the venue from World War II to World War I was to avoid similarities to Captain America. Add one part Return of the Jedi as Diana…well, I won’t give away that part. What I will say is that it’s all very well-paced. Whenever I started to think, “They could use an action scene about now,” WHAM! There’d be an action scene.

The character of Diana is well-fleshed out (pun intended): a fierce and confident warrior, but a thoughtful one, ever mindful of the consequences of her actions.

Steve is less cerebral, but quite likable. He is adept at shifting into various personae in his capacity as a spy. In one scene, at a party, he disguises himself as a German and conducts an expert seduction of Dr. Maru, the inventor of the German weapon, only to blow it when Diana walks into the room wearing a stunning evening gown. Indeed, Steve’s inability to ever know what to make of Diana is comical, but in an endearing way, not an awkward 1970’s I didn’t expect a girl to be strong way. Definitely good chemistry between them. One of the funniest scenes is when they are in close quarters on the sailing ship, Diana wants Steve to sleep with her (or, at least, next to her), and gentleman Steve figures he better find out how much she understands about sex. It turns out she understands a great deal—from reading, at least—and has concluded that males are necessary for procreation but have little to contribute to pleasure. It’s a funny line that doubles as a sop for the feminists. (My right-of-center friends will be happy to know that the movie contains very few such sops. There's one other line about women in the cabinet room and that's about it. No girls-against-the-boys, no men-are-stupid.)

Much as I liked Steve and Diana, it was the secondary characters who were my favorites—Steve’s feisty secretary Etta Candy; Sameer, the con man with a thousand alter egos; Charlie, the sniper who couldn’t shoot; and The Chief, a native-American war profiteer. One of my few criticisms of the movie was that after it introduces us to these great characters, it doesn't give them much to do.

My other criticism (not counting some nits) was the movie’s occasional flirtations with being profound. It didn’t really work. For example, in a modern-day epilogue, Diana concludes, after decades of studying mankind in war and in peace, that what the world needs now is love, sweet love. Thank you, Burt Bacharach. A tired, cliché, oversimplified analysis of what ails us. And completely unnecessary.

Because Wonder Woman does just fine on its own without tacking on a pseudo-deep message. It’s a great, great movie: exciting, visually gorgeous (and not just because of Gal Gadot), and did I mention fun? When I saw it last night, and the end credits began to roll, something rare happened: the audience applauded. Okay, I confess. I started it. But I wasn’t the one who yelled, “Woohoo!” Judging from reports of women-only showings selling out in Austin, TX, and some positive buzz on websites like Ms. Magazine and Bustle, it’s possible that when the reviews are in, it’ll turn out that even feminists like it. If DC keeps this up, Cinema Sins may have to stop counting “DC Comics” as a sin.

Want more Amazon women? Check out the novel Full Asylum by Nerds who Read editor-in-chief Mike Isenberg. Available, appropriately, at Amazon.com.

Photo credit: Indian Express

Thursday, June 1, 2017

My Big Fat Greek Origin Story

An Introduction to Wonder Woman, Part II
by Kerey McKenna.

Only hours left until the Wonder Woman movie premieres, and Mike, my editor, is still demanding background. Much as I want to tell him to do his own damn research, I suppose I am the resident expert on comics here at Nerds who Read.

In Part I of my Wonder Woman primer, I covered the origins of Diana of Themyscira and began describing some of the people in her life, specifically Steve Trevor, Diana’s sometime romantic interest who always seems to be in need of rescuing. If Steve is the Lois Lane in her life, then the Jimmy Olson is…

Etta Candy

At least I thought she was the Jimmy Olson. Boy, did I bite off more than I could chew. Trying to summarize and contextualize Etta Candy for this article almost broke me. She was part of the Wonder Woman comics’ lore of the Golden Age but I can’t think of another peripheral character that has had so many re-interpretations and different narrative roles in a superhero mythology.

Etta Candy first entered the narrative in the 1940’s as part of a gang of college co-eds that tagged along on Wonder Woman’s adventures. In stark contrast to the thin and graceful brunette Diana, Etta was blond, short, and rotund but brassy, vivacious and always rolling up her sleeves to brawl against enemy henchmen.

Since then, most adaptations have veered drastically away, in any number of directions in age, race, body type, and narrative function.

In some versions, such as the upcoming movie or the first season of the Lynda Carter Series, Etta is a co-worker of Steve and Diana in military intelligence and is just kind a of a wacky character from their office providing a bit of workplace comic relief.

In other versions she is a rival for Steve's romantic intentions and her proportions have been slimmed down from Rubenesque to fit and trim.

When David E. Kelly’s tried to adapt Wonder Woman to a TV series in 2011, Etta was changed to a meek and long suffering “Girl Friday” for Wonder Woman.

In yet other versions she is a capable intelligence officer in her own right and in charge of Steve Trevor’s spy agency. A bit like Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad, but competent.

Suffice to say, if the plot calls for a role for a woman in Diana and Steve’s life off the island there’s a good chance it will be filled by Etta, in one form or another.

If Etta’s back story seems confounding that’s nothing compared to…

Wonder Girl

Ms. Not-Appearing-in-this-Movie. If you’re really interested, see Wikipedia.

Who are her enemies?

Operating as long as she has, Wonder Woman has made her fair share of enemies, ranging from the mundane and mortal (Nazis and gangsters), to the mythic (gods and monsters), to the weird (mad scientists & aliens).

Ares, the God of War, is most likely to be Diana’s main antagonist in the movie. While Diana and her people are favored by most of the Greco-Roman Pantheon, Ares is often their sworn enemy. Amazons are wise in the ways of war (thanks to the patronage of Athena), but they are also wise in the ways of statecraft and do not seek out conflict. That puts them at odds with Ares, who feeds off man’s hatreds and works behind the scenes to fan the flames of war. As man’s capacity for destruction grows, Ares's efforts, left unchecked, might one day destroy the world.

What are her powers/abilities/equipment?

By virtue of her years of Amazon training, and the patronage of the Greco-Roman gods her people worship, Diana is as beautiful as Aphrodite, swifter than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules. She is a superb athlete and martial artist. Other powers tend to vary from adaptation to adaptation. She may be able to fly like Superman or speak any language, including the languages of the animals.

It’s hard to pin down how strong Wonder Woman is. Certainly strong enough to lift a car or a tank above her head. But can she, say, bench press more than Superman can? Can she beat Superman or Batman in a fight?

General consensus is that she isn’t as strong as Superman, but she’s a trained martial artist while Supes presumably only has a few tips imparted by Ol’ Pa Kent on how to throw a punch. Wonder Woman’s prowess in hand-to-hand or with melee weapons exceeds that of Batman, and as she has superhuman speed, endurance, and strength, she is one of the few people to have ever bested the Dark Knight in a fight. (Fight Superman, he cries, "Martha!" Fight Batman, he cries, "Uncle!")

Diana’s most iconic pieces of equipment are her wrist bracers and lasso. The metal bracers allow her to deflect not only hand-to-hand attacks but also arrows, bullets, lasers, and whatever else the bad guys throw her way. As for her lasso, it has the power to make anyone bound with it tell the truth—which proved rather embarrassing to Lois Lane.

But binding brings us to Wonder Woman's weakness: binding. If she is herself ensnared by a man (sometimes by her own lasso, sometimes by anything else), she loses access to her demigod powers. To re-earn the favor of her patron goddesses, she must be released, or even better, free herself using cunning and guile.

Another piece of iconic kit is her plane, a semi-magical aircraft that is invisible (but leaves her visible in the cockpit). Sometimes the invisible plane is contemporary to the setting, sometimes it is a highly advanced piece of technology beyond anything else in the world.

Wonder Woman’s costume has gone through some revisions over the years but has usually returned to a red, white, blue, and gold color scheme. It most often consists of red boots, a blue and white star spangled bottom, a red top with a gold eagle embellishment topped off with a tiara. The general evolution has moved from something a dancer or gymnast would wear, to something fittingly inspired by a hoplite warrior. About every 10 years or so there is an attempt to do something drastically different like a tracksuit/jumpsuit or a leather biker jacket but these major changes never seem to stick.

Conclusion

Well, hopefully this guide has given you some grounding for the lore of Wonder Woman before you head into the theater and my editor enough background to write his review. The bottom line: Wonder Woman lore is always in flux.

Wonder Woman premiered in a time when one of the greatest contributions women could make to the war effort was to take on administrative and industrial jobs so that men could go off and fight. She has been present through every subsequent wave of feminism and been with us as women’s role has changed in the military, in the workplace, and in the family. Many would argue she helped champion and inspire some of those changes in roles.

Further Reading

  • Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr. William Marston, his wife Elizabeth Olive, his live-in girlfriend Olive Bryne, and the open polyamorous relationship the three of them had would be worth an article in its own right. They’re covered in the Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Thorpe and Wonder Woman Unbound by Tim Hanley.
  • Since 2011 Wonder Woman’s monthly series have been entangled in reboots of her character and/or the greater DC Comics universe. Some of these stories are quite worthwhile, but as far as Wonder Woman adventures you don’t need to consult Wikipedia to understand, I recommend the collections Sensational Comics: Wonder Woman, Volumes 1 and 2, an anthology series not tied to any particular era or continuity.
  • Wonder Woman Earth One by Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette was an attempt by DC comics in 2016 to tell Wonder Woman’s story to a new audience. The authors actively resisted entangling her story with a greater DC universe.
  • Similarly, 2009’s direct to video animated Wonder Woman Movie does a great job of telling Diana’s origin story as a rip-roaring standalone adventure.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

    Photo Credits: Costumes worn by Wonder Woman by BoyBlue

  • Tuesday, May 30, 2017

    My Big Fat Greek Origin Story

    An Introduction to Wonder Woman, Part I
    by Kerey McKenna.

    Because I’m the resident comic book nerd here at Nerds who Read, the editor has some questions for me before the latest superheroine movie opens this weekend.

    “Kerey!” he shouts into a phone while counting the money from his self-published novel Full Asylum [Available on Amazon –ed]. “I’m going to do a review of Wonder Woman. If the movie flops, I'll need to know all the ways they deviated from the source material for my piece 'Blunder Woman!' If it’s successful I'll need to know everything they did right for my review, 'She is Wonder Woman: Hear her Roar!'”

    “Okay, Chief,” I reply. “Well, right off the bat I can tell you that this will be the first version of her origin story set in World War I.”

    “Don’t call me Chief!” Mike the Editor bellows as he reviews competing contracts for a movie deal. “And why is the change in setting important?”

    “Well when she premiered in 1941, the Second World War (which would soon involve America) was what everyone had on the brain. Every subsequent adaptation either held that she fought in World War II and lives on to the present day (like Captain America Steve Rogers) or updates the time and conflict to something contemporary (like how Iron Man originated in Vietnam but the movie updated the conflict to modern Afghanistan). There are some narrative reasons for the shift back to 1914 but probably a bit of marketing too.”

    “Why marketing?” Mike demands while looking over head shots, comparing actresses to play the flame-haired Amazon heroine of Full Asylum. Clearly he has Amazon women on the brain.

    “It differentiates her from that other star-spangled wartime superhero, the one over at Marvel. Also it would be hard to sell toys if the baddies are decked out in Nazi regalia. That’s why Captain America now fights the fictitious ‘Hydra,’ Chief.”

    “Hrrm, don’t call me Chief. And don’t talk about a lot of Marvel characters. I want to know about DC. Where does Wonder Woman come from in the comics? What are her powers and costume? Who are her friends? Who are her enemies?”

    “Well, Chief, ‘comics canon’ can be a bit hard to pin down. She’s been in publication almost as long as Batman and Superman. But really she only received one transition to the screen of her own: the 1970s TV series with Lynda Carter. Over the years a lot of creative teams have taken a crack at retooling the character. For example, since 2011 DC comics has published around four canon reinterpretations of her origin. Each reboot was seemingly done to undo and reverse the changes of the previous reboot. DC is actually working on yet another Wonder Woman reboot as they unwind the reboot of their entire universe. I mean just comparing and contrasting the last four reboots in relation to each other for you and our readers would be pretty daunting.”

    “Hrm, you may have point there.” Mike responds. “Tell you what, why don’t you just walk us through more of the adaptations if these last four are giving you so much trouble?”

    “So to save effort, instead of a walkthrough of the four most recent takes on her origins, you want me to do a walkthrough of more of them? Spanning a longer period of time?” I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Okay, Chief. I’ll write something up for you.”

    “And have it on my desk before the premiere. AND DON’T CALL ME CHIEF!”

    Anyway, that’s my assignment. So here goes…

    Where does Wonder Woman come from?

    Diana comes from the mythical island paradise of Themyscira, a land inhabited exclusively by women (the Amazons) since the days of Greek myth. Protected from outsiders and the ravages of age by the patron gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman Pantheon, the Amazon women are beautiful, in peak human (or demi-god) shape, and immortal (or at least extremely long-lived).

    How Diana, or any girl for that matter, came to be born on an island of only women is a point of contention. Originally it was held that Diana’s mother Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, sculpted an infant out of clay and the gods imbued it with life.

    Of late, though, the “magic infant clay golem” origin story has come into disfavor. Many post-2000’s revisions revise things to claim that the clay story was a fabrication. They make much hay out of revealing DIANA HAD A FATHER, usually a god or demigod like Hercules, Hades, Ares, or the big guy himself, Zeus. Double drama points if the god or demi-god in question is antagonistic to the Amazons.

    The nature and character of the Amazons themselves tend to vary from adaptation to adaptation (get used to that phrase): sometimes they are an insular group of misandrists stuck in the Bronze Age. Other times they are keepers of high magic and advanced technology like anti-gravity, invisible planes, and a purple light beam that can cure any illness or injury, as long as the plot doesn’t require a character to die. Whichever end of the technology spectrum they fall on, the Amazons feel they have created a utopia by not having any men around to muck up the works.

    All that changes when a stranger washes ashore Diana’s Island. Which moves us on to…

    Steve Trevor

    Steve Trevor is to Wonder Woman what Lois Lane is to Superman: they’re both mortal love interests who have a knack for getting in over their heads and needing daring rescues.

    Steve is an American military intelligence officer. Exactly which branch of the military employs him and in which conflict he serves tends to vary from adaptation to adaptation. In any case, he is shipwrecked on Themyscira by accident (After all no mortal man would ask for directions. ZING!).

    Steve is a square-jawed man of action and espionage who just tries to roll with the punches when he wakes up surrounded by a bevy of Amazon beauties.

    Diana, seeking adventure and feeling responsible for this strange but obviously hapless refugee, takes it upon herself to take him back to his home. In some versions she intercedes to save his life from summary execution, like the legends of Pocahontas interceding on behalf of Captain John Smith. In other tales, the Amazons are perfectly happy to aid his departure from the island and hold a tournament among themselves to decide who will have the honor. Either way Diana gets the assignment to bring him back to “The World of Men” and decides to stay and serve as a force for good in that world.

    Off the island, Steve is Diana’s love interest and guide to the strange ways of the modern world. To keep him safe and to stay close to the intrigue of Steve’s military intelligence work, Diana often assumes the secret identity of “Diana Prince.” Her undercover role tends to vary from adaptation to adaptation. Sometimes she’s a military nurse, other times a member of the admin staff. Professional clothes, glasses, and hair in a different style. (I wonder if she exchanged notes with another “strange visitor from another world” with a “mild-mannered” alter ego?) In still other versions, recognizing that her job would get Steve Trevor a life sentence for treason for sneaking a foreign national into the workings of US military intelligence, Diana eventually discards her coke-bottle glasses and lives openly as Ambassador of Themyscira, representing her people on the world stage.

    Of course, coming, as she does, from the Island of the Amazons, it's natural that Diana would want female companionship, which brings me to her friend, and in some adaptations, rival for Steve's romantic intentions, Etta Candy.

    To be continued…

    Check out Part II here.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

    To learn more about Wonder Woman's 1940's pinup-inspired incarnation, Bombshells, check out Kerey's review, "A Justice League of their Own."

    Photo Credits: ComicBookBrain.com, ytimg.com, Alex Ross, Tumblr, pinimg.com

    Tuesday, May 23, 2017

    A Solid, Suspenseful Thriller with Spaceships. And Wagner.

    Alien: Covenant
    A more nerdy than read-y movie review
    by Michael Isenberg

    I went to see Alien: Covenant because I wanted answers, dammit. Answers to all those lingering questions from 2012’s Prometheus, which I hoped Covenant, its sequel, would address. Why did the Engineers turn on humankind? Why did David the Android put something in Charlie’s drink that caused him to impregnate Elizabeth with alien spawn? And what happened to David and Elizabeth after they flew off to find the Engineers’ home planet at the end of the film?

    Covenant did answer two of my three questions. Maybe all three—one answer might have flown by too fast. However, the answers probably take up less than three minutes of this two hour movie, mostly in the form of exposition. They just aren’t what Covenant is about.

    What it is about is a new adventure, the story of the crew of the ship Covenant, en route to a distant planet with a cargo of some two thousand colonists in stasis, a bunch of frozen embryos, and a small crew recently awakened to deal with a mechanical crisis which killed Captain Branson. As they make their repairs, they pick up a scratchy transmission of a human being singing John Denver’s “Take me Home, Country Roads.” They trace its origin to a previously unknown planet that’s every bit as ripe for settlement as their destination, but years closer. And so Branson’s successor, Oram, opts for a detour. Since he does so over the objections of Branson’s widow, Daniels, it’s clear this isn’t going to end well. This is the Alien franchise, after all—Ripley, Shaw—you ignore the tough-as-nails hottie with the short hair at your own risk.

    What follows is a taut, suspenseful thriller with a couple of neat twists that kept me riveted. Yeah, I know, that's a bunch of cliches. But cliches become cliches because sometimes they're right on the money, and that's definitely the case here.

    Convenant flows well, with just the right amount of breathing space amidst the violence, and just the right amount of gorgeous cinematography of spaceships. On that last point, director Ridley Scott successfully found the middle ground between the excessively long, wet, sloppy space kisses that made 2001 and Star Trek: the Motion Picture so boring, and the frantic pace of today’s movies, Guardians of the Galaxy for example, that don't give you an interstellar hardware fix at all.

    Suspense, spaceships, and a wonderful clip from Wagner’s Das Rheingold were enough to keep me entertained for two hours, which is a good thing because that’s all this movie really has going for it.

    The attempts to give depth to the characters fall flat. I don’t know Branson and Daniels well enough to feel her grief at his loss. And, yeah, the crew doesn’t really trust Oram, so I feel a little bad for him, but not much because he’s not all that great a leader. I thought the problem was that he came across as uncertain and he didn't listen to the people who worked for him, but in his mind, the problem was that men of faith such as himself are not trusted in the year 2104. I don't know where he got that idea. I can't recall any other mentions that that was a thing in this universe. It wasn’t a problem for Elizabeth in Prometheus to be a woman of faith. And there’s another crew member of the Covenant who goes around openly wearing a Star of David around her neck, but her crew mates didn't seem to think any less of her. I wasn’t sure who she was. Aside from Daniels, Oram, the android David, the other android Walter, and the pilot Tennessee, I wasn’t sure who anybody was. But some of them were so stupid they made me want to scream, “You’re highly-trained astronauts, God damn it. Don’t you have f--king procedures regarding the safe handling of alien plant life?!” But in any case, the whole business of faith is not discussed any further, other than a throwaway line later in the flick.

    And speaking of discussing stuff, the dialog does not sparkle. The only memorable lines were written, not by the six men who got writing credits, but rather by John Milton and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as quoted by David.

    It seemed to me that the movie covers the tropes that made the Alien franchise famous pretty well: People wearing meaningful objects around their necks. Lots of gooey bodily fluids. Fights in claustrophobic quarters. However, it's apparently not enough for hardcore fans. My friend Derek Power, who wrote the screenplays for The Relationship Triptych, tells me they feel Covenant is too Prometheus-y and not enough Alien-y. Of course, he cautions, "If you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody."

    As for the most famous trope of all, alien babies popping out of peoples' stomachs, they got that too, but every time it happens, a song runs through my head: "Hello, m'baby. Hello, m'honey. Hello, m'ragtime gal." Thanks, Spaceballs.

    So by all means, go see Alien:Covenant. You'll get a solid, suspenseful thriller with spaceships. And Wagner. Just don’t expect more than that.

    Michael Isenberg is editor in chief of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a solid, suspenseful thriller without spaceships. And it's a comedy. Available at Amazon.com.

    Photo credit: IMDB

    Friday, May 19, 2017

    And I’m learning Chinese, says Wernher von Braun

    Anarquía by Brad Linaweaver and J. Kent Hastings
    Book Review by Michael Isenberg

    In 1924, the twelve-year old Wernher von Braun built a rocket-propelled car by mounting fireworks on his toy wagon. He released it into the streets of Berlin, where it caused a major traffic tie up. Von Braun was briefly arrested until his father came to get him. He went on to a notorious career in rocket science, first building weapons for Nazi Germany, then putting a man on the moon for the United States. His dubious loyalties made him the subject of some biting satire by Tom Lehrer.

    Some twelve years after the incident with the wagon, Mrs. Fritz Mandl, star of the controversial movie Ecstasy, left her Nazi-sympathizer husband. He was a controlling bastard and she was convinced he would never let her pursue her film career. And so, one evening, after a dinner party where she had convinced him to let her wear all her jewelry, she disguised herself in her maid’s clothes and slipped out of the house, into the streets of Vienna. She eventually ended up in Hollywood, where she took on the stage name Hedy Lamarr (no, that’s not Hedley) and became one of the leading stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. On the side, she invented a frequency-hopping technique to prevent enemy forces in World War II from jamming the radio controls of Allied torpedoes. Today that technique powers our mobile phones.

    In their 2004 alternate history, Anarquía, Brad Linaweaver and J. Kent Hastings ask what if Dr. von Braun and Mrs. Mandl had taken a slight detour along the way? What if instead of merely tying up traffic, von Braun’s wagon had exploded and killed a woman, someone from high society who’s death couldn’t be ignored, resulting in the unraveling of the von Braun family and a stay in Juvenile Hall for young Wernher? What if, during the “Great Escape” from Vienna, Hedy had run into von Braun on the train, and they became so taken with each other that their futures took a very different path from what the history books teach us.

    The short version is that von Braun never works for the Nazis, Lamarr takes a break from Hollywood, and they both end up in middle of the Spanish Civil War. There, von Braun puts his rockets, and Hedy her radio expertise (not to mention her skill at inspiring the morale of the troops) in the service of neither the Nazi-backed Franco, nor the Soviet-backed Republicans, but rather, the anarcho-syndicalist, José Buenaventura Durruti—leading to a very different outcome for Spain. Along the way, they run into a host of 1930s celebrities, including Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, and G.K.Chesterton.

    Some reviewers criticized Anarquía for putting too much effort into weaving the various celebrities into the narrative, even when it had little to do with the plot. But IMHO that was what made the book fun and entertaining—and what’s wrong with a little entertainment, especially as we head into beach-reading season? (We finally are having our first stint of warm weather here in New England). Hanging out with Hemingway in Spain felt like I was part of one of his novels, and Linaweaver and Hastings captured Rand to a tee—the first thing she said to Hedy Lamarr on meeting her, without pleasantry or preamble, was “They tell me that you have a good mind.” Granted, I’m partial to an alternate timeline where Rand’s husband cheated on her, instead of the other way around (karma), and where her screenplay Red Pawn actually got made into a movie. It’s a compelling story which in the real world never saw any sort of screen, silver or otherwise. (How ‘bout it, Hollywood?)

    Adding to the fun are lots of great dialog (Chesterton: “It’s not as easy to be anti-Catholic as you think. Sometimes it requires a career in the Church.”) and plenty of Easter eggs for readers who are paying attention. These include the lines, “I’m learning Chinese!” and “‘That’s not my department,’ said Wernher von Braun.” (If you don’t get it, see the video, above). There’s also a mention of one Rick Blaine, who of course was Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca.

    However, Anarquía isn’t all fun and games. It has some serious points to make. One is historical: the Spanish Civil War was very much a rehearsal for World War II, a proving ground for the Nazis and the Soviets to try out the latest technologies of killing, especially air power, with devastating effects.

    Another point is philosophical. Linaweaver and Hastings explore the psychology of a German fighter pilot as he strafes the innocents at Guernica: “Thinking about the larger picture always helped on a mission. Ideology made Ernst feel better as he shot down children and watched them fall twitching in his sights. Ideology was not a luxury. It was a necessity when you had to kill people.” The authors contrast that with the libertarian anarchism of Lamarr and von Braun. Their conclusion: when intelligent people are able to innovate in an atmosphere of freedom, they beat the totalitarian a$$holes every time.

    Michael Isenberg is editor in chief of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a James Bond parody with presidential politics and hospital gowns. Available at Amazon.com.