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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Back to the Retro-Future

A Steampunk Starter Pack
By Kerey McKenna

“Imagine it. The Victorian Age accelerated. Starships and missiles, fueled by coal and driven by steam. Leaving history devastated in its wake.” —Doctor Who, “Tooth and Claw”

I have a special place in my heart for the Genre of Steampunk, the subgenre of Sci-fi fantasy that draws inspiration from Victorian and Edwardian era technology. Yes, for the purposes of this article, that is my definition of steampunk. Because a full piece on what is or isn’t steampunk would be its own article, an article that has been written many times, much better than I could write it, by both by steampunk outsiders and enthusiastic steampunk proponents.

Shameless Plug: I am such a fan of steampunk, I make it an annual tradition to volunteer with the Watch City Steampunk Festival of Waltham Massachusetts, a wonderful open air event that combines the cosplay of a ren faire or science fiction convention, with the community spirit and mass appeal of a street festival and town founders day. And by the way, the festival is THIS WEEKEND, Friday May 12th and Saturday May 13th. Yep, craft vendors, three stages of musical and circus performances, and no entry fee. Find out more about the event at www.watchcityfestival.com.

But with that shameless plug, I do have a point. Serving as a brand ambassador for a steampunk festival and having to explain to passers-by who are all the people with goggles, top hats and ray-guns wandering around their town, I am sometimes asked to make reading recommendations. So here, in no particular order, are some of the books and series I recommend to those who want to get a sense what steampunk is all about:

1.) Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio. This long running comic book (also available as a free webcomic, updated three days a week like steam-powered clockwork) is a madcap adventure of infectious fun. In the world of Girl Genius, prodigies known as “Sparks” drive rapid advances in steam age technology through the pursuit of SCIENCE! (note: the all caps and exclamation point). Steam-powered clockwork robots, patchwork revenant mercenaries, and massive flying air fortresses are just some of the wonderful and terrifying creations that clank, prowl, and sour about the Sparks' world. Phil Foglio’s art keeps things zipping along at a manageable pace, even as the story grows to epic proportions with a massive cast. With its exuberant art style and general audience sensibilities (I would say the humor and art can sometimes be saucy but never raunchy), it’s a great introduction to steampunk for audiences young and old.

2.) The Leviathan Series, written by Scott Westerfeld and illustrated by Keith Thompson, is marketed as young adult but should be fun for anyone who likes an adventure. In 1914, the assassination of an Austrian Archduke has Europe on the edge of war. However in this world, alliances aren’t just drawn by marriage or strategic convenience but by technology. The European continent is split between “Darwinist” nations like England that use biotechnology to create weird beasts of war and the “Clanker” nations like Germany that craft zeppelins, massive warships, tanks, and robots out of metal. Now, through happenstance, two children, a son of the German aristocracy and an English girl masquerading as a boy in the British Royal Air Corps, must attempt to thwart the conspiracy that seeks to plunge the world into war. Keith Thompson’s illustrations help flesh out a world of massive land ships and strange creatures (like an airship crafted from a genetically-altered whale). Certainly worth a look to see one of the ways steampunk sometimes serves as a sort of alternate historical fantasy.

3.) Aethers of Mars by Eric Flint and Charles Gannon. This collaboration expands the Great Game of espionage played among the powers of Europe, their colonies, industrialists, and dissidents to the red sands of Mars. The authors imagine a cosmos adhering more closely to 19th century theories of an interplanetary ether (or aether if you’re fancy) that the engine of a spaceship can churn or paddle through like a ship on a river or the ocean. Flint and Gannon do a great job of bringing the wonderfully impossible interplanetary passenger liner to life, from its steam engine heated by solar power to how proper Victorian passengers would deal with the indignities of microgravity. Into this magnificent ship, the authors place overlapping tales of the passengers, who include the family of a scientist looking for academic freedom, a soldier of fortune seeking a cure for the Martian virus eating him from within, two agents of the Tsar’s secret police, and an undercover anarchist agitator. Really more of two companion novellas than a full novel, it gives readers the idea of steampunk space travel; from there they may want to pursue other similar series or perhaps go back and read Edgar Rice Borroughs John Carter of Mars series. (For more Eric Flint, check out the Nerds who Read review of his novel 1632. It’s a sort of a West Virginia Yankee in King Gustavus Adolphus’s Court.)

4) Steamfunk! Edited By Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade. One of my first general recommendations to people looking for steampunk reads is to snap up an anthology, see if the genre is for them, and note their favorite stories and authors for further reading. However I usually don’t mention particular anthologies because as genre sampler platters, steampunk collections are readily available and somewhat indistinguishable. The exception that proves the rule is Steamfunk!, a collection of steampunk and science fiction tales told from an African and African-American perspective. This collection focuses on a sub-genre of a sub-genre with a specific editorial mandate, but with a multitude of storytelling styles and tones so you never feel like one story is the same as the next.

5) Soulless (Parasol Protectorate Book 1) by Gail Carriger. And because the list was leaning a bit heavy towards alternate history and high adventure, I wanted to get some supernatural, horror, and romance in there. Soulless takes the conventions of a Jane Austin-period Romance novel and blends them with Victorian supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and ghosts (in a way more natural than simply grafting them onto a classic text, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). The Soulless series plays with Victorian sensibilities and mores as vampires and werewolves are fully integrated members of English society. Proper etiquette dictates that the social-climbing Londoners not take offense when the queen of the local vampire hive declines a glass of red wine or a Scottish Member of Parliament turns down any invitation for a dinner party on the full moon. Alexia Tarbotti is a sensible young(ish) woman, quite indifferently preparing for a life of spinsterhood, who has the power to negate supernatural powers with a touch. She finds herself in the midst of a plot to destroy the peace between the mortal and supernatural citizens of the Empire. Owing allegiance to no supernatural faction, nor being under the thumb of a husband, she may be the operative the Crown needs to get to the bottom of things. Fans of period romances will probably get the biggest kick out of this one.

So that’s my list. Is it a comprehensive treatment of the “Steampunk Canon”? Certainly not. My stingy editor wouldn’t give me enough space to cover luminaries of Victorian-era science fiction like Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne, or founding pieces of steampunk literature like Sterling and Gibson’s Difference Engine. So these are just some recommendations to get you started. But I assure you there is a galaxy of not only steampunk literature, but also steampunk TV, movies, cartoons, theater, video games, RPGs, fashion, and music out there. If you take to it, I have a feeling your list of recommendations would wind up very different from mine. And that’s okay, because I am always looking for my next good steampunk read.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts this Friday and Saturday, May 12 and 13, 2017. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy 2: the MCU on Steroids

A More Nerdy than Read-y Movie Review by Michael Isenberg


Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 was the most fun movie I’ve seen in a long time. Possibly ever. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its faults. Like plot.

Indeed, big fun and small plot seem to be endemic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In my review of last year's Captain America, for example, I wrote, “The challenge for the writers of Civil War is to put Cap and Tony at loggerheads without it being a downer for the audience. They succeed by making it fun.” But...“The plot is overcomplicated….Zemo’s plan is a house of cards.” If these are the hallmarks of the MCU, then Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is the MCU on steroids.

The fun part starts in the opening credits sequence. It’s an epic space battle in which the Guardians we know and love from Vol 1—Quill, Drax, Rocket, and Gamora—must push their combat skills to the limit. Except that it all goes on in the background. The foreground is Baby Groot, dancing. He’s adorable. He’s the Butters of the Guardians of the Galaxy galaxy. Just sort of in his own…galaxy.

But lest you think the fun depends entirely on cuteness, let me say that it's Drax, rather than Baby Groot, who steals the show. For me, Drax was the least interesting member of the team in the first movie. I remember him as kind of a stiff. Maybe my memory is faulty, but it seems to me that since then he’s had a personality makeover. His insults for the other guardians, often at inappropriate times, are hilarious. I loved when he called Rocket a "trash panda." And yet, he manages to serve up some wisdom with his insults. For example:

Drax: There are two types of beings in the universe: those who dance, and those who do not.
Quill: I get it, yes. I am a dancer, Gamora is not.
Drax: You need to find a woman who's pathetic, like you.

By the time the movie reaches the halfway point, I’ve been laughing my ass off for an hour. There’s a nice technology upgrade of the biplane scene in North by Northwest, and I like the newcomer Mantis whose humorous ineptness at social interaction includes telling people, Sheldon Cooper-like, that she’s inept at social interaction. And she’s a lot cuter than Sheldon.

But I’m starting to wonder, where’s the plot? Sure Gamora is having some sibling rivalry with her cyborg sister, and Rocket and Groot have to escape from some pirates. Quill has met his long-lost father, and there are some genuinely touching moments there. But so far there's nothing that resembles a main conflict.

There are hints that it’s coming, however, and that it will ultimately involve dear old dad, who might not be the good guy he seems. Granted, given that his name is Ego, that’s as much as a surprise as the moment in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, when the hero finds out that even though he'd been led to believe that the Queen of the Night was an innocent victim of an evil wizard, it turned out he had it backwards and the Queen of the Night was the real villain. Like the name "Queen of the Night" wasn't a clue. I’m shocked—SHOCKED.

Indeed, the plot to Guardians 2 does get underway in the second hour, and it’s all stolen from Star Trek. There are elements of the Genesis planet from The Search for Spock, but it’s basically a cross between The Wrath of Khan and The Final Frontier. Remember the The Final Frontier? Star Trek V? The worst Star Trek that ever star trekked? Well, that’s the second hour of Guardians 2. All of a sudden the jokes start falling flat and the touching moments no longer touch. It was almost as if the second half was written by a different writer (although apparently there was only one, director James Gunn. The other eight writing credits went to the creators of the characters). And even the Star Trek II elements can’t save it. Imagine what the ending of Wrath of Khan would have been like if the character who sacrificed himself to save his friends wasn’t Spock, but rather someone who we didn’t care about all that much. Say, Fred the Transporter Operator. Kirk’s speech at the funeral (“Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was most…[lip quiver] human.”), just wouldn't have been the same. Instead of poignant and heartwarming, it would have been downright embarrassing. And that spectacular sight of the coffin shooting out the torpedo tube in a blaze of light just wouldn’t have had the same emotional resonance. Meh.

On the plus side, since the dead man in Guardians 2 is someone we don’t care about all that much, at least he’ll probably stay dead. Hollywood has way overdone the character-who-died-saving-everybody-comes-back-to-life cliché.

The visual effects in Guardians 2 are stunning—especially the depiction of Ego’s home planet. I recommend seeing the film in IMAX 3D to fully appreciate the Edenesque landscapes and the amazingly life-like closeups of Rocket. (One nit—if you’re going to have your characters walking in CGI snow, take the trouble to draw in CGI footprints.)

Of course, spectacular CGI isn’t enough to carry a movie. All too often these days, Hollywood attempts to substitute awesome visual effects for good dialog, characterization, and plot, with lackluster results. Dialog, characterization, and plot are the pillars of great storytelling. But at least in Guardians 2, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks, they still have two out of three pillars of storytelling working for them, AND THAT AIN’T BAAAAAD!

P.S. Here are my predictions for the first two sins in “Everything Wrong with Guardians of the Galaxy 2” when it comes out:

1. New Marvel logo is even longer and more boring than old Marvel logo.
2. As opposed to Missouri, Jupiter

Michael Isenberg is editor-in-chief of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a James Bond parody with top-notch dialog, characterization, and plot. Available at Amazon.com.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Modern Modern Stone Age Family

The Flintstones Volume 1 by Mark Russell. Art by Steve Pugh
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

The Flintstones: just by saying the name the theme song of this classic cartoon is now running through your head. You are welcome.

A brief recap in case you have been living...under a rock: Premiering 1960, it took the basic premise of The Honeymooners—the hijinks of two lunkheaded blue collar guys and their wives—and staged it in a pre-history that somehow looks like the suburban prosperity of contemporary America. This Hanna-Barbera Classic went on to become the longest running cartoon on American television, until being unseated by another lunkheaded working class schmo and his family.

Besides all the rock puns and machines powered by animals, a core concept of The Flintstones is the American nuclear family and that way of life having a certain inevitability and permanence. It formed a conceptual bookend with another Hanna-Barbera classic, The Jetsons, which assured us that the American nuclear family (white, male breadwinner, stay-at-home wife, kids, pets, and labor saving devices) had always been and would always be.

Even after the Flintstones left the air as a weekly series, they continued on in animated movies, live-action films, a merchandising empire, and from time to time, comic books—comics that sought to completely replicate the style and sensibilities of the original.

But now DC Comics is re-inventing the wheel with a new take on The Flintstones.

The key characters, premise, and gimmicks are all left intact: Fred, Wilma, Pebbles, Barney, Betty, BamBam, and Dino are denizens of a prehistoric town of Bedrock that bears uncanny similarities to modern America. The character designs, while leaning a bit to more naturally proportioned bodies, are instantly recognizable as the characters we knew from the Saturday morning cartoons. There are still plenty of visual gags and puns built around a prehistoric version of our society; Fred can take a call on his shell phone, grab a coffee at the local Starbricks, and then go bowling with an armadillo as a ball. But the humor is, well for lack of a better term, more evolved.

Yes, in an angle that will either make or break this book for the reader, this new Flintstones series takes a sharp turn from domestic farce and slapstick comedy to a sort of dramedy reflecting upon the complexity and absurdity of modern life and institutions. In this first volume of The Flintstones (the first six issues of the run), the conflict doesn’t come from the tensions between a loutish husband and a nagging wife, but rather between people and the society they find themselves in.

Perhaps it is just my philosophy degree talking, but I see a lot of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in this new take on the Flintstones. The series, like Rousseau, posits that at some point in the primordial past mankind had the option of living in the absolute freedom of the wild, but has opted to trade that freedom for creature comforts and higher pursuits. The Flintstones comic goes a step further, building upon a running gag of the cartoons, positing that the animals that power the appliances have consciously opted into the system of domestication, trade, and specialization into a specific skill. As the bird working as a can opener says, “It’s a living.” [I was going to post a panel from the comic where a sabretooth tiger glumly chooses domestication over starvation but I couldn’t find it. It’s a missing link.] No, Rousseau wasn’t the only, or even the first, thinker to opine that society is the result of collective action and agreement...but he did so with a certain wistful nostalgia for that lost Eden of the freedom of a simpler life.

Our hero Fred is frustrated that the society in which he finds himself is always driving him to buy solutions for problems that he didn’t even realize he had. Now that he has a house instead of a cave, that house must have a lawn, and because consensus rules that a lawn be trimmed and have grass, not weeds, he has to go out and buy a weed-whacker (i.e. a goat). The societal contract now has so many sub-clauses that much of modern life is now done “because.” That's what's expected, and nobody can give a reason why beyond two steps.

In addition to banality and absurdity, the civilized world brings wonders, but is also built upon struggle, violence, and some would argue atrocities made all the more horrible by their moral hypocrisy. In what is sure to be a more controversial move, the series re-casts “The Order of the Water Buffalo” —a riff on the Freemasons and Elks—into a veterans group. We discover that when they were younger Fred, Barney and their fellow veterans, thinking they were defending their families, were actually used as pawns to seize land and resources from the neighboring peaceful tribe, “The Tree People,” so that Bedrock could expand and modernize.

In the first issue, Fred plays host to a group of Neanderthal men who have come out of the wilderness, Rousseau's “State of Nature”, to suss out if this whole “civilization thing” is worth a shot. After working a day in the rock quarry, listening to war stories from Fred’s veterans group, and being wined and dined at a restaurant, the Neanderthals eventually shrug their shoulders conclude that “Civilization is just trying to get somebody else to do your work and kill for you,” and return to the hard, but honest, struggle of the primordial forest.

The Flintstones, like Rousseau, isn’t actually making the argument that mankind would be better off in the trees, but rather that our society is a conscious construct in the attempt to make a better life and sometimes inequities and absurdities happen and that should be acknowledged.

In another episode, the institution of monogamous marriage is explored. As a bit of social commentary, the premise is laid out that in the Stone Age world of The Flintstones, monogamy between two individuals is a relatively new societal development, in contrast to more traditional arrangements like polyamory and a harem of one man and many wives. The book completely sidesteps any low-hanging fruit of drama here. Fred is not tempted by a bevy of buxom cave beauties, nor is Wilma considering trading up for a smarter and/or stronger physical specimen. And while they recognize some of the logical arguments in favor of a two-parent nuclear family, those societal pressures aren’t the reason Fred and Wilma are together. Their marriage is set in stone because of a genuine belief that they would rather live together then struggle alone. Marriage, like Bedrock, isn’t without its sacrifices and absurdities but it is worth fighting for (just as Fred, Barney, and their army buddies do later when they take up arms against a legitimate hostile invasion). So in the end Fred and Wilma, Betty and Barney, and their friends Adam and Steve decide marriage is worth fighting for. Yes, Adam and Steve. They’re having a gay old time.

So final thoughts on Volume 1 of The Flintstones?

Yes, it does away with a lot of the feel of “classic” Flintstones domestic comedy and slapstick, but the torch for primetime cartoon clod was passed a long time ago.

Yes, it’s a darker and grittier reworking of a classic series. Frankly a lot of the attempts at that editorial mandate get mixed reviews at best. Archie is now a teen drama on the CW, taking its cues on sex and violence from Twin Peaks and Pretty Little Liars. As for comics, my first review here for Nerds who Read was a reworking of Sabrina the Teenage Witch as 60’s occult horror. Scooby Do is now an action series set after the apocalypse.

No. Really.

Ruh, roh.

And DC Comics bungled the darker and edgier versions of their own iconic superheroes, chiefly Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, so badly that the re-designs are being walked back substantially in the comics and much of geekdom will be surprised if Justice League doesn't fall flat on its face.

So it’s quite understandable that you may shy away from darker and grittier reworkings. Fortunately, in the case of The Flintstones, there are many iterations of the classic version to fall back on. In doing background research for this review, I was actually surprised how many. Critic Bob “Movie Bob” Chipman has a great two part retrospective on just the iterations of the cartoon alone (Part 1 and Part 2). I was also surprised to learn this is actually only the 2nd attempt in recent memory to add a more adult edge to the well worn premise. So for anybody who wants to see the Flintstones in classic form, there are decades of material out there to enjoy. Heck, if you are really craving a straight adaptation you could even seek out the two live adaptations of the series that took great pains to translate the rhythms, aesthetics and sensibilities of the cartoon.

But I happened to get a kick out of this new spin on the series. If you can accept that an outlandishly cartoon world can also try to be adult and maudlin (aka Netflix series BoJack Horseman), you’ll find The Flintstones is definitely one of the better ones. I would say it’s worth a look.

Now one more time, just for good measure…

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 13, 2017. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.