Wednesday, November 30, 2016
The Tooth is a Graphic Novel written by one of my favorites, Cullen Bunn, working in collaboration with writer Shawn Lee and artist Matt Kindt. This quirky story is a love letter to Horror and Superhero Comics of a bygone era.
The titular Tooth is a gigantic beast of great strength that can shrink down to the size of a fang and fit in the mouth of a host. The Tooth forms a symbiotic relationship with his host, in this case our mere mortal of a protagonist named Graham. Whenever Graham is threatened - which happens quite often over the course of the story - The Tooth springs from his mouth in a Hulk like rage and rips the threat limb from limb.
This may sound pretty straightforward so far, but The Tooth is a comic within a comic. There are fictional retro-style advertisements and a letters page that alludes to a massive continuity of the character 'The Tooth,' the many hosts that came before Graham, and a Rouges Gallery of Super Villains that we never get to meet within the pages of the Graphic Novel.
I'd like to take a minute to talk about Matt Kindt's art style. At first glance it seems rather simplistic, almost childlike, but if you take a closer look you can tell Mr. Kindt knows what he's doing. There are some really strong panel compositions here. Matt Kindt's loose style really adds to the charm of this book.
As well as paying homage to comics as a storytelling medium, there are several visual nods to Ray Harryhausen (such as a guest appearance of the Mechanical Owl form Clash of the Titans, and Graham mentioning that the Dragon of Ares 'Sounds like something from a Harryhausen movie' the very next page) Which is appropriate as Harryhausen is the one who helped popularized stories about two monsters punching each other in the face. It's also appropriate since The Tooth's origin is rooted in Greek Mythology.
There's a moment towards the end of the graphic novel that I really like: The Tooth Graham, and his ally Sheriff Turnbull are attacked by a hoard of Vampire women (who are wearing skimpy red dresses and black knee-high boots as a nod to 70's horror comic icon Vampirella) and Graham tries to ward them off by putting two sticks together to form a cross. He is informed that he doesn't have enough faith to repel a Vampire. So the Sheriff whips out his badge and drives off the Vampire using his faith in the law. This is exactly the sort of thing I mentioned before on this blog about symbolism getting lost in modern day Vampire fiction. It's not the cross that drives away a Vampire, but Faith in what the cross represents.
This book is a ton of fun, and comes from a creative team that clearly loves comics. I consider The Tooth one of the gems of my collection, and I encourage you to give it a read if you have the chance. It's quirky and fun and has big monsters punching each other. You won't regret it.
Monday, November 21, 2016
So I did something this past weekend that I don't often do: Watch a silent movie. Don't get me wrong, I'm always up for a classic film. I just happen to prefer classic films that have spoken dialog. But I had seen several other adaptions of 'The Thief of Bagdad' - most notably the 1940 version (There's also an Italian version from 1961, but that's barely recognizable as the same story) - so I decided to give the original 1924 version a shot.
Even if you haven't seen any adaption of 'The Thief of Bagdad' you'll probably find the story a bit familiar. Possibly because it pulls so much inspiration by 1001 Arabian Nights, and possibly because every movie adaption of Arabian Nights that came after 'Thief of Bagdad' seems to pull inspiration from 'Thief of Bagdad'. Disney's 'Aladdin' for example, probably has as much or more in common with the 1924 and 1940 versions of 'Thief of Bagdad' than it does with the original fairy tale of Aladdin.
Our story starts with a happy-go-lucky thief (played by Douglas Fairbanks) who seems to steal for the fun of it, and also enjoys outrunning or outwitting his pursuers. The beginning of this movie is actually really funny with visual humor style that's just shy of slapstick. For example, in one scene he escapes his pursuers by running over the backs of people kneeling in prayer. Each one is startled, and they all look up at him as he jumps on their backs. It's well timed and choreographed, and lots of fun to watch. I know there are silent comedies such as the Charlie Chaplin films, but I guess prior to this point I've mostly just watched horror films like 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) and German Expressionist films such as 'Metropolis' (1927).
After stealing a magic rope that enables him to scale any wall, the Thief returns to his hideout to show the rope to his buddy - who is an elderly thief. The two make plans to scale the palace wall and make off with the royal jewels.
Meanwhile the evil ruler of the Mongols decides he wants to take over Bagdad. He devises a plan to disguise himself as a suitor to the Princess of Bagdad and smuggle his army past the walls disguised a porters bringing gifts. The whole 'Bad guy is trying to marry the Princess so he can take control of the Kingdom' thing is something we've seen hundreds of times before, but it's refreshing in this story that he doesn't actually want to marry the princess - at least not at first. He unfortunately decides he wants to marry her later on in the story.
So he does what any good friend would do: Suggest that our hero sneak into the palace, drug the princess, and then kidnap her. Because that's how you get a girl to like you, apparently. So our hero goes to the marketplace, steals clothes that make him look like royalty, and enters the palace disguised as a suitor.
Meanwhile the princess has her fortune told to help her decide which suitor to pick. There's some sort of mumbo-jumbo prophecy about 'The first one to touch the rose bush' is the one the princess should marry.
So the suitors all arrive, and the princess, because she's a horrible person, judges each one by there looks. She doesn't like the way the first one scowls, the second one is too fat, and the third one - the bad guy - looks too evil. And of course she falls for our hero at first sight.
Amusingly enough, one of the suitors - the fat one - is referred to as 'The Prince of Persia.' This isn't the Prince of Persia!
THIS, my friends, is the Prince of Persia!
So the Mongolian servant girl tips the Bad Guy off about the magic rose bush. He's about to touch it, but he's stung by a bee instead. And because this movie is basically slapstick the bee also spooks our hero's horse and he rather predictably falls off onto the rose bush, fulfilling the prophecy. After that he's all set to kidnap the princess, but she decides to cut out the middle man of the whole Stockholm Syndrome thing and confesses her love for him. She chooses the Thief to be her husband, and he is so overcome with guilt that he tells her the truth: He's not really a Prince.
She's okay with this, but unfortunately the Mongolian servant girl recognizes him and blows his cover in front of the Caliph of Bagdad. Now the Thief is once again a hunted man, but the Princess bribes the guards and sneaks him outside the palace walls.
The Caliph demands that she choose a REAL prince to marry from the three remaining suitors. She sends them off on a wild goose chase: whoever finds and brings back the rarest treasure in the world is the one she will marry. This kicks off the second half of the movie, and it's a loose adaption of the Arabian Nights story 'The Three Princes and the Princess Nouronnihar'. The one finds a magic carpet, the next finds a magic crystal that can show the owner whatever they want to see, and the third - in this case the villain - finds an apple that can cure any ailment. The villain then sends one of his spies back to the palace to poison the princess so she will declare his gift the greatest as it is the only one that can save her life.
Meanwhile our hero goes on a quest of his own, and he will face many perils some of which feature better special effects than others. A cavern filled with flames is pretty believable. The giant bat and spider puppets? Not so much. He is also tempted by underwater sirens, but remembers his love for the princess just in time and escapes. He finds a winged horse - either inspired by the Arabian Nights tale of the Flying Mechanical Horse or the Pegasus from Greek mythology - and uses it to find a castle in the clouds and a box filled with magic dust that becomes whatever the owner desires.
So the other suitors discover that Princess is dying after looking into the magic crystal. They use the magic carpet to fly back to the palace, and then the Bad Guy uses the magic apple to save the Princess' life (which he endangered by the way, so it doesn't really count). He insists that she marry him as his gift is the rarest. She finds a loophole however: The carpet and the crystal were just as important to saving her life as the magic apple.
Enraged, the bad guy decides that he will take the city by force after all, and summons his army that had infiltrated the Bagdad earlier. Our hero is returning from his epic quest, and he learns that the Mongolian army has taken Bagdad. He creates an army of his own using the box full of magic sand, and rushes to save the day. But he be in time to stop the Mongolian prince from carrying the Princess off on the magic carpet? That is the question.
This is definitely worth a watch, but I'd suggest saving it for a lazy afternoon as it is two and a half hours long. It clearly had a big influence on adventure and fantasy movies, and if you're an Arabian Nights fan you should enjoy this early adaption. The film is now public domain and can be enjoyed free of cost on Youtube.com or Archive.org.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when I thought Fu Manchu was a style of mustache. Not to say it ISN'T a style of mustache, but it's more that that too. It's also the name of one of the most inspirational criminal masterminds in detective fiction. Dr. Fu Manchu was a 'Yellow Peril' villain created by British pulp writer Sax Rohmer in 1911, and is said to have had an influence on villains such as Ming the Merciless, Dr. No, Ra's al Ghul, and The Mandarin.
When I was first getting into serials I heard that 'Drums of Fu Manchu' was one of the very best. My response to this bold claim was of course: "I thought a Fu Manchu was just a style of mustache." A little research showed me otherwise. I started watching the movies, 'Mask of Fu Manchu' staring Boris Karlof and the British series of movies staring Christopher Lee, and tracking down some of the books. Eventually I got my hands on the classic serial.
There are some Science Fiction elements here as well. Nothing as extreme as the Rocketships of 'Flash Gordon' or the Jetpacks and Robots of the 'Rocketman' serials. But there are diabolical murder weapons such as a poison dart hidden in a microphone and triggered by sound vibration, and also a door protected by a force-field that disintegrates anyone or anything trying to pass through.
Halfway trough the serial it switches to more of a adventure serial with treasure hunting, deathtraps such as primitive lasers made from mirrors and sunlight, spear traps triggered by tripwire, deadly caves filled with dropping stalactites, and tombs that slowly fill with poison gas.
The story is a loose adaption of Sax Rohmer's novel 'Mask of Fu Manchu'. In the serial Fu Manchu is trying to get his hands on the Scepter of Genghis Khan in order to prove himself the prophesied ruler over all Asia who was foretold to appear that year. He is apposed by Sir Denis Nayland Smith and our young American hero Allan Parker. Allan's father, an Archeologist, is held prisoner by Fu Manchu as he knows how to find the tomb of Genghis Kahn. Dr. Parker is killed in the rescue attempt.
Allan doesn't seem too broken up about his father's death at the time, but he sees fit to remind us of the fact that he's out for revenge on Fu Manchu every once in a while just in case we'd forgotten. In general he doesn't have much personalty and is as smart or as dumb as the plot sees fit. For example in Chapter 2 he hitches a ride to Fu Manchu's hideout by grabbing onto the running-board of the bad guy's car. THAT'S SMART. Later on in the same chapter, he deliberately backs up until he's standing on the secret trapdoor in Fu Manchu's hideout. THAT'S DUMB. And hilarious. Hilariously dumb.
Nayland Smith, the hero of all of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels, is more or less demoted to sidekick. He's the leader, and does a bit of detective work early on, but it's the less British and more square-jawed Allan who drives the action. Still, Sir Nayland has it better than Dr. Petrie - the narrator of many of the books - who has little to no dialog in this serial.
We also have Mary Randolf, who would be the Damsel in Distress under most circumstances, but we have Allan to play that role more often than not.
And what of Fu Manchu? How is he in this serial? Visually speaking, he's rather imposing. And his sinister plots, torture devices, murder weapons, and disguises are top notch. Unfortunately he speaks in a high pitched and nasally voice that is rather difficult to take seriously.
Allan, Nayland Smith, and company race to keep Fu Manchu from all of the clues leading to the Tomb of Genghis Khan and then race him to the tomb itself. These chapters are all exciting, but I tend to loose interest after Chapter 11 when they finally find the scepter. The rest of the serial is spent trying to keep the scepter away from Fu Manchu, and when that fails, stop him from using it to gain power over all the Mongolian tribes.
Standout cliffhangers include the sequence where Allan is attacked by Fu Manchu's giant octopus, the 'Pit and the Pendulum' torture device, and a bomb rigged to blow Allan up as soon as the phone rings. Mary and Nayland Smith are given instructions to call at a certain time, unknowingly dooming their comrade.
Another great chapter ending is one in which Fu Manchu discredits our heroes in front of the friendly natives, and then tries to sacrifice a hypnotized Mary in the Temple of the Sun.
Although it's not my personal favorite, 'Drums of Fu Manchu' is a serial worth watching. It's a mash-up of Adventure and Crime Fighting serials, and features a villain who - though largely forgotten now - had a big influence on pop culture from Superhero comics to the villains in the James Bond films.
Monday, November 7, 2016
It's no secret that Star Wars was partially inspired by Flash Gordon. George Lucas stated in interviews that he was a big fan of the serial 'Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe' as a kid. Pretty much any Flash Gordon fan will tell you that Cloud City was a visual nod to the flying city of the Hawkmen. But it goes a little further than the striking visual of a city in the air. There seem to be parallels in the events that take place on Cloud City, and even parallels of character arcs for Lando Calrissian and King Vultan.
In 'Empire Strikes Back' Han Solo and Princess Leia are of course escaping from the forces of the Empire. They land in Cloud City for repaired unaware that Boba Fett and Darth Vader have beaten them there.
King Vultan tries to add Dale to his harem. 'Empire Strikes Back' tones this down a little bit, but Lando does some non-stop flirting with Leia in front of Han. What's that classic Cars song? 'Best Friend's Girl?' Yeah, that's the one.
Both Lando and Vultan are authority figures in their flying cities, but they both bow to the greater authority of the Empire. In both cases they are willing to turn our heroes over to the villains in the best interest of their city and the people they rule over.
So our heroes are now in the clutches of the villains. Flash Gordon is tortured by Princess Aura because he has once again chosen Dale over her and she's a woman scorned. Han Solo is tortured by Darth Vader because...well, dramatic reasons? He's the bad guy. Just go with it.
So here the stories deviate a little bit. Lando's conscience finally gets the better of him. He's growing more and more uncomfortable with his arrangement with Darth Vader, who has 'Altered the Deal' one time too many. He and Han Solo had been old friends after all. So he helps Princess Leia and Chewbacca escape so they can try to rescue Han from Boba Fett.
In Flash Gordon King Vultan and Flash are not old friends. They are in fact enemies. So naturally this plays out differently. Flash and Zarkov escape to try and save Dale from Vultan. While Flash is doing what he does best - the more active part of going to rescue, Zarkov is doing what he does best - working behind the scenes. He sabotages the flying city. It's no longer a flying city. It's a falling city.
So they make a deal with King Vultan. Zarkov will fix the flying city IF and WHEN Vultan lets them go. They don't have a lot of time for negotiating, so naturally Vultan agrees to there terms. King Vultan is so grateful when Zarkov fixes the city - even though Zarkov broke it in the first place - that he allies himself with our little band of heroes.
So when Ming shows up to take our heroes prisoner again Vultan intervenes. Rather allow Flash to be taken prisoner he calls for 'The Tournament of Death!' With friends like these, am-I-right? So Flash must now fight in an arena for his life and freedom.
The two stories do play out differently, but there are parallels even in the differences. Lando uses his remaining influence in Cloud City as a last ditch effort to rescue Han, Chewie and Leia. Vultan uses the traditions of Mongo to give Flash a way to earn freedom for Dale and himself.
The similarities don't end there either. Lando and Vultan both aid the heroes in battle later on in the story as well. Lando Calrissian joins the Rebellion and leads the battle against the second Death Star in 'Return of the Jedi'. King Vultan and his army of Hawkmen becomes one of Flash Gordon's greatest allies in his fight against against Emperor Ming.
As I said, Flash Gordon fans tend to bring up the Hawkmen and Cloud City when they talk about Flash Gordon's influence on Star Wars. I can definitely see why.