Being a Better Geek in 2016

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I recently read a good article at Cracked.com entitled ‘6 Ways To Be A Better Nerd In 2016’ (and you can, too, at http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-ways-to-be-better-nerd-in-2016/). Author J.F. Sargent put forth some notions I’ve had for a while now, and also set some excellent guidelines for Getting Your Geek On in a Good Way. I will use the term ‘Geek’ here because, apart from the whole carnival-sideshow-chicken-decapitation-with-teeth origin, I prefer it to Nerd. It goes with a delineation I heard many years ago and which I find mostly valid. Nerds are isolationists who live in their parent’s basements long after reaching the age of majority, have likely never slept in the company of another human being, and mentally inhabit the worlds of fancy they so dearly and deeply love. Geeks also have a deep and abiding love of fantasy and science fiction and games and cartoons, but take more delight in the social aspects of bonding with others of a like mind. Geeks manage, sometimes with difficulty, to walk in both the Real World and their fantasy realms, often making parallels or connections between the two. If they are fortunate, they take this sharing to a level of finding similarly wired life partners and are capable of long-term romantic relationships. Geeks get things done, and I attribute much of our current Geekcentric Pop Culture Bonanza to these individuals. To those who have not only made connections between the worlds and genres of wonder they discovered in the pages of comic books, science fiction novels & old movie serials and the Real World, but have guided the non-Geek crowd to discover some of that wonder.

I’m not taking anything away from Nerd-dom. We’re all of us programmed differently, hardwired differently, and have varying life experiences that shape us. Some Nerds I have encountered over the years are so single-minded in their love of their focus world/element, so versed and steeped in it, that they have reached a Nerd-vana so rich, deep and textured that I will never know its like. But that’s because I got married, got a job, and raised a family. Most Nerds I’ve encountered had to choose a path at the Fork of Reality, and they went t’other way. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just divergent. A Super Tolkien Nerd has read, and continues to re-read, each of the Tolkien novels over and over again. He or she may know others similarly involved and may communicate endless insights into plot, character, author and meaning, most likely via an indirect route. Or not. Doesn’t matter, they are good citizens of Middle Earth and they know it as fully as some of us know our own neighborhoods. Probably more. A Super Tolkien Geek is Peter Jackson, who loved the material and managed to lead the film industry producers, studio, actors, writers, artists and other creative folks to bring the pages to life onscreen so that many other non-Geeks could discover & explore Middle Earth with him.geekbloggandalf

By this train of my logic (and yes, mine can be as faulty as the next person’s, but it’s the railway we’re proceeding upon), the current pop culture trend of TV, movies, books, toys and financial reward cemented in fantasy/science fiction/worlds of What If—? is the result of Geeks who got things done in the Real World. If you are a Geek of long standing, a Geek in training, a Geek conscript sucked in by one of those pop culture elements mentioned, then take a bow and be proud. If you are a Nerd, you probably didn’t get past the Peter Jackson mention because you largely disliked those films, which didn’t even have Tom Bombadil in them, to the heathen and evil detriment to all that his holy, so there. And this is why most of what follows is aimed to resonate with my fellow Geeks, but Nerds are welcome as well.

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Geek pride rules today. But we all know about the Prideful Falling Theorem. Pride, as Marsellus Wallace opines, only hurts. It never helps. Broad statement, but it has some grains of truth. Just ask Lucifer. Prideful people, Geeks included, can do some pretty ugly, selfish, petty and messed up things and still Be Okay with it.

Here’s where it gets real. If you have been a Geek for very many decades, or a Nerd for that matter, chances are high that you suffered for your passion. At some time, in some way, the greater population let you know that it was weird to play Dungeons and Dragons, to read pulp novels and comic books, to revel in movies or TV shows about unrealistic stuff. And they made you feel weird for liking those things. It may have been a slight jibe, or it may have been a total social shunning. It may have come when you were young, in which case a slight jibe is a total social shunning. Likely, you sniffed, continued on with your devotion in silence, and let the chips fall on whichever shoulder they chose. You grokked Spock even if everyone else thought he was an expert on infant medicine.bloggeekcave

I feel your pain. I walked your path, which was thorny, through no fault of our own. And there’s a line of dialogue delivered by Sandahl Bergman as the thief Valeria in ‘Conan the Babarian’ that burned bright and deep in my closeted Geeky heart and kept me warm for many years: “All my life I’ve been alone. Many times I’ve faced death with no one to know. I would look into the huts and the tents of others in the coldest dark and I would see figures holding each other in the night. But I always passed by. You and I, we have warmth. That’s so hard to find in this world. Please. Let someone else pass by in the night. Let us take the world by the throat and make it give us what we desire.”

Now I had not many times faced death, but the part about being on the outside looking in? Yeah. And the part about, once I’d found fellow Geeks who were into the things I loved, letting the other naysayers pass us by as we sneered at them for their devotion only to the things they considered non-fantastic/weird/realistic? Oh, yeah.bloggeeksandahlbergman “If comics are beneath you, then you can be beneath us, because we have one another and we don’t need YOU to qualify our passion for the graphic novel.”

Geeks coming into their own. It’s a joyous moment, but it’s full of that Pride thing. And let’s face it, it’s as ugly as the non-Geek turning his or her nose up at the things you love most, and you along with it. It’s about as unflattering as the 20th Century denizen-Admiral Kirk exchange in ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’. “Dumbass!” “Well.. double dumbass on you!” Plus, if one were to apply logic, as Spock would say, it is a mindset quickly shown for what it is:

“You take enjoyment from worlds of fantasy and science fiction, wherein one of the tenants is often reveling in the diversity of humankind, correct?” “You betcha! Gimme a Vulcan salute!” “One of the diversities might take the form of those who do not read, who believe ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ resonated with them spiritually, and who follow all manner of professional sports.” “Oh, screw THAT!” “I am merely positing one possible diversity you might encounter, were the fantasy setting you enjoy played out in the Real World. Also, the Vulcan salute you are now giving me usually consists of several fingers, not simply one. Curious.”

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As the Marvel Comics Cinema Universe rakes in money hand-over-adamantium claw, as the top rated TV shows either have to do with a group of super-nerds/mega-geeks and their interaction with the non-nerdy world and each other OR comic book heroes those characters idolize, as graphic novels are finally being looked upon as worthy (in some cases) of the honorific ‘literature, as ‘The Force Awakens’ breaks every box office record known from here to Coruscant to Jakku, Geeks rule the culture. And if you want to make some serious dough, you had best placate us. Yay. Also from ‘Conan the Barbarian’, these words of wisdom: “Wealth can be wonderful, but you know, success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary.”

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FACT: It’s base human nature for those in charge to treat shabbily those who are not. Or who aspire to become part of the elite. And woe unto those who put up a faux front of being ‘one of the chosen’.

FACT: It’s a common thread in almost everything we love that those who act badly about being in power, from Emperor Palpatine to Supreme Leader Snoke, from Darth Vader to Lex Luthor to President Snow, must eventually and by all rights either redeem themselves (self-sacrifice the preferred method) or prepare to suck it.

FACT: No cultural dominant trend lasts forever. Baby Boomers seem to have the most problem with this, and as one of the late-comers to that generational party, I have witnessed it. But it’s true. Just look at the once-dominant Hollywood fodder force, The American Western. Books, TV, movies, huge celebrity status for Western thespians. Westerns permeated the culture, toys, box office, entertainment receipts and hearts of the public for much of the 1940’s through the 1960’s and early 1970’s. To sell the original ‘Star Trek’, there’s a very good reason Gene Roddenberry condescended his idea for the show to executives as ‘A ‘Wagon Train’ in space’. Nigh-on three decades is a long love affair for any cultural trend, but when it was over, it was really, really over. Like coming come to find the house cleaned out (including the toilet paper rolls on the spindle) and divorce papers taped to the empty kitchen cabinet over.

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So what will we, the Geek Gods, do when the last call goes out and the party is over for our basking time in the Sun of Celebrity? Will we have designated drivers and conduct ourselves with honor befitting those who have seen childhood dreams realized and who now step aside for the Next Big Thing to take center stage? Or inebriated on pride and self-importance, will we stagger toward our landspeeders with keys firmly in hand, snarling at anyone who dares say we really shouldn’t drive? Then demand one more round, vowing that we -will- return tomorrow for the party as per recent usual, grope a waitress dressed as Squirrel Girl, be drop-kicked by a bouncer cosplaying Power Man, find ourselves unceremoniously tossed out of the Pop Bar & Grill, and wake up the next morning sore and bitter and wondering why we have a sonic screwdriver pen light in our underwear?

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Personally, I’m hoping we can all look around at each another and, grinning ear-to-ear, say as one, “That was a great game. Goodnight, Neverland.” But to do that, to have grace and poise and all the things we generally love in our fantasy heroes when they are on the losing end of fortune, we need to prep. Now. Some probably more than others. But we can and should all make an effort to be Better Geeks in 2016. Here are some ways to begin.

Kill the Elitist in You. As ones in charge, we Geeks have taken to fighting amongst ourselves with a my-fantasy-is-better-than-yours shoulder chip in the Big Game. You love Star Wars. I love Star Trek. The things we like in both make one no ‘better’ than the other. Space Opera is one thing, Science Fiction is another animal. Debate over which is ‘best’ is entertaining if done in a spirit of fun, but bad form when people let their emotions and passions rule. We are a passionate people; we should have a care.

Then Move Onto the One-Better, and Make It a Double Homicide. If we both collect vintage toys, or comic books, or whatever…take enjoyment from doing that and sharing the spirit of nostalgia with one another. Not from crowing that my complete set of 1964-1975 GI Joe action figures puts to eternal shame your Land Adventurer and Talking Astronaut, who by the way, doesn’t even have all his original accessories. If you engage in Keeping Up With Someone Else in the same field to one-better him or her, just stop it. bloggeekjoe2You’re violating the Good Spirit of Geekery. Besides, mundane folks do that over cars and purses, much to our chagrin. How unseemly! Channel Yoda: Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Be Thankful. Most of us have lived through lean times when quality fantasy, sci-fi and comic book animated or live action fare was rare. The days when ‘Logan’s Run’ was a quirky little film that piqued our imagination, and The Greatest American Hero and Saturday morning’s Shazam/Isis Hour fulfilled our longing for some on-screen superhero recognition. We now live in a world where we’ve seen a comic book-based movie about a mostly obscure team of aliens with only one human and an anthropomorphic raccoon get made, and made well, with very respectable budgets and attention to the source material, and then set box office records. Where comic book heroes have their own TV shows and air in gazillions of reruns, plus several new weekly shows. bloggeekBat-Girl-PSAI used to wait for the 60 second Equal Employment Opportunity PSA to air because it had the TV Batman show characters in it, and no station we got was running the series reruns. Or Star Trek. Or Lost in Space. So…consider the Geek Feast you’re being treated to, savor it, treasure it. And if you find something not to your liking, something that reminds you of Aunt Carol’s lime jello with cabbage, instead of turning your nose up, be less critical. Be nice. Because chances are, it’s still a dish loved by someone you know.

Be Geek Ambassadors, Not Snobs. So you were laughed at for your ignorance of professional baseball when you tried to contribute to a water cooler discussion of a sports trend or personality. Stings, dunnit? So the BEST thing to do when one of your comic book-ignorant buddies comes to you and asks questions about the next Big Graphic Novel Character getting a screen treatment is to sting him right back by making fun of his lack of basic knowledge of the comic book, by explaining the lack of merit in his questions, and by finally sharing with him your belief that any money he might spend to go see something this deep, this complex, this Geeky grand, would be better tossed down a manhole. If you’re nodding, that was a test. This is NOT the way to behave. Instead, think of that one co-worker, when people were shooting water out their noses at your innocent but naïve sports question or comment, who took a moment to kindly answer, and maybe even explain, what the hell was so funny to everyone else. He’s being a good Baseball Ambassador to the Uninitiated, and you can follow his shining example. It makes you, Geek culture and by osmosis all of the rest of us look good. It also sells a lot more movie tickets and sometimes leads to opening a world of imagination for one who would have passed it by otherwise. Even if there was no one stepping up as that nice Baseball Ambassador for you, here’s your chance to show Geek grace in action. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than someone who asks me about ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (several folks, some who know quite a bit about Iron Man, Thor and Captain America titles, came to me on that one), considers our discussion, watches the film, and then begins reading the current title because it was enjoyable. This is how fandom foundations grow and flourish. And you may even find yourself enjoying a certain Geek Guru status among your peers, their docent to the current entertainment trends.

Don’t Kill the Buzz of the Younger Generation. To you, who was the kid in the front row of Podunk Cinema One in 1977 when ‘Star Wars’ played your town for the first time, those Prequel Star Wars Movies were abominations that should be steadfastly ignored or, better, flailed on the public square with a dose of your most outraged tongue lashing when some ignorant ‘fan-child’ half your age enthuses over them. bloggeekGmingAnd the New 52 is, Great Caesar’s Ghost, NOT the DC characters you know and love, thus they are invalid, thus anyone who finds positive things in this Post-Identity Crisis continuity worthwhile is a poopyhead. And don’t even get you started about Superman without his traditional exterior red underwear! This is a brand of Elitist that slowly ages like a fine wine, but turns to vinegar instead (thanks again, Marsellus Wallace). And the sunlamp of guilt shines on my sweaty brow, because I have taken that DC Boomer stance about the New 52. Buuuut…I was just doing what I’d witnessed oldsters do when the ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ books did away with the tatters of Silver Age continuity confusion. Which, as I recall, seemed childish, boorish and many other -ishes I do not w-ish (see what I did there?) to be. So I came to my senses. I reformed. I may not care for most of the New 52 titles (and yes, I have read some to see if they were enjoyable…some were). But I know younger fans who like the darker and edgier version of the iconic DC characters. I won’t tell them that their love of this stripe of fantasy is invalid, because it’s just as valid as my love for the Giffen Justice League was when old timers were screaming for the return of the classic lineup. I WILL take DC to task for writing their iconic characters poorly and for being Corporate Asshats and for their lack of artistic vision when I encounter these things. Because DC has always been better than that, and it can be again. Even with darker, edgier versions of their characters, good writing is good writing. And bad writing is beneath them. Killing Robin(s) is no longer dark and edgy. Been done. It’s now just lazy writing for an easy impact, and there’s far too much of that in comics now. Not just at DC. Instead of playing Statler and Waldorf, listen to these Young Geeks voice how and why they like what they do. You’ll learn something about the timbre of the next gen, and you may also be shown positive parts of the new versions that you missed while lamenting endlessly that these are not your superheroes, Jedi or Federation officers.

Display the Positive Side of Geekery in the Real World. Share the love, and in a positive way for the non-Geek or Casual Geek to take as an example. You know what I mean. Window washers at children’s hospitals dressed as superheroes. Batkid allowed his dream of being Batman thanks to the efforts, imagination and good will of hundreds of Geek and Non-Geek people supporting him. Cosplayers for Christ groups, blending the heroic ideals of superheroes with a love for the One True Superbeing. Fans who donate to comic book funds set up for artists and writers who, in their advanced years and living on fixed incomes, find life difficult. Or donating to help with medical care for professionals like Bill Mantlo, co-creator of the comic book character Rocket Raccoon, featured prominently in the film treatment of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. Bill has been living in a care facility ever since a 1992 hit-and-run accident left him suffering from brain damage. Fans began the effort to help him and his family by donating to an online fund to the tune of the price of one movie admission ticket; ‘If you loved ‘Guardians’, please give a box office ticket amount to the Mantols’. And fans did, a lot. Then Marvel Comics took notice and got in on the good will effort, sharing from their much deeper pockets. It was a shining moment of Geekery-done-right. You can make that sort of a difference. You are imaginative folks, and you own the culture for the now. You actually have a responsibility to do something blisteringly positive, big or small, with that double-barrel shotgun of opportunity. So we’re not Uber-Geek Billionaire Bill Gates. We dont have to be, to volunteer at a no-kill pet shelter, proudly attired in your best Geek-centric, animal-lover t-shirts.

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Promote the Heroic Ideal, -and- the Technology. How much of the fantastic fiction and fantasy that we love has impacted he Real World? Well, ‘Star Trek’ inspired legions of folks who went on to become scientists, physcists, space explorers and astronomers. And technology certainly benefits all if cell phones, satellites, and that elusive 2015 hoverboard are any indicators. In fact, the track record of fantasy to reality has a lot of ‘inspired by a story/TV show/film he or she loved as a child, Geek Geekery went into making this dream a reality’ stories. Like the Wonder Twins, inventors of the fist-bump on ‘Superfriends’. bloggeek2gleekSo that’s all good, we do that. But what we don’t promote enough is taking the more positive social elements of these imagined worlds (no, not the Dystopian Future sagas we are being treated to today…but maybe the role of rebels shirking oppressor’s yokes) and pursue them in the Real World. That’s harder. We can dream of a voyage to the moon and make it happen, but treat people of other beliefs, other genders, other races or other nationalities with respect and accepting curiosity about how their life experience differs from our own? To aspire to the positive civility we see on every page of our futuristic or fantasy reads? Mmmm. That’s tougher. Which is why we need to try much harder.

I’ve convinced me. I’m going to work harder at being a Geek Ambassador in 2016. If we all do what we can in that cause, we know that it will be a better and a happier New Year!

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Wildcat Christmas

 

blogwildcatmonkey2“Introducing first…. from the red corner. Weighing 250 pounds… he hails from New York City, and is rated by many as the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time, with an astonishing total of 158 wins, 139 of them coming by way of knockout, and no defeats. He is the former HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD…Ted Grant!”  If Ted Grant was a real person, and if he agreed to participate in a charity boxing match, that’s the kind of introduction he would rate. Fans of DC Comics know the rest of the story. When title challenger Grant earned a fight with the reigning champ and his best friend, Socker Smith, in 1941, he was an unwitting part of a plot to make certain Smith lost to increase revenues from the fight. Their managers, Skinner and Flint, placed a needle containing a sedative in Grant’s boxing glove, assuming that a hard blow from Grant would inject the sedative and knock Smith out. Flint, however, overdosed the needle; when Grant struck Smith, the older boxer was killed. Grant was arrested on a charge of murder after investigators found the hidden needle. Escaping custody after Flint & Skinner arranged a fatal ‘accident’ for the squad car he was transported in, Grant began making plans to clear his name and to bring those responsible for Smith’s death to justice.

But the way would be difficult. Grant was a wanted man, and his face was well known to the public. Overhearing some youngsters talking about the comic book exploits of their real-life hero, the masked adventurer called The Green Lantern, Grant decided to also create a masked identity for himself so that he could seek out the murderers anonymously. blogwildcatGL.jpg

The Green Lantern inspired Wildcat, Wildcat inspired Little Boy Blue when he and his pals read about his exploits. All co-created by Bill Finger.

 Since he was known in some circles as a ‘wildcat of the ring’, Grant chose a feline costume and cowl and began hunting his prey as the fighting fury of the mean streets…Wildcat!  Tracking Flint & Skinner to their hideout, he quickly got confessions from both. Out of is masked guise, Grant turned himself in, was cleared of the charges thanks to the confessions, and eventually did become Heavyweight Champion of the World. But he also found himself bitten by the adventuring bug, and continued his Wildcat career as a masked crime fighter. A few years later, he joined with other mystery men and women as part of The Justice Society of America. Thanks to an early adventure involving a mystic villain, Grant was cursed with 9 lives, and so he aged much more slowly than a normal human being. He navigated his career in the ring for over two decades as Champ, retiring undefeated. And while many of his JSA colleagues retired from the superhero business, Grant has continued to be an active member of the team in all of its incarnations, even the last one organized in 1999.

 

L-R Wildcat by Irwin Hasen, Joe Gallagher, J Chester Koslak. Below, L-R, Joe Kubert, Bernie Krigstein.

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So. What’s so special about a non-powered superhero who dresses as a cat to fight crime? A lot, as it turns out, and these elements make Wildcat one of my favorite, perhaps my MOST favorite, comic book hero. Ever.

Those who know me are aware; they have heard me singing his praises, probably more than they cared to. And so, for Christmas this year, my loving family commissioned Silver Age comic artist emeritus Neal Adams to make an original Wildcat portrait for me. It is a thing of beauty, a holy grail of my lifelong love affair with comics. And it made me reevaluate why I love this Golden Age character so very much.  

 

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My Wildcat, by Mr. Neal Adams.

 

He’s a Missing Link between pulp heroes and superheroes. Wildcat isn’t alone in this, but he’s one of the most enduring examples of a normal man with extreme fighting skills who puts on a costume and mask to fight crime without a personal fortune behind him, tons of tech to support him, or even powers to cloud men’s minds.

More classic Wildcat art, this from the Silver Age. L-R, Carmine Infantino with Murphy Anderson, Jim Aparo, Nick Cardy.

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Wildcat is an enduring legacy to Bill Finger. Mr. Finger’s contributions to the Batman mythos are legion, but until recently, Bob Kane is most remembered and credited as the Dark Knight’s creator for various reasons and contractual conditions. Wildcat was Finger’s own crime fighter, along with artist Irwin Hasen.

 Though not attired in a complex costume, Wildcat’s look is perfect for his street-level crime fighter image. As imagined by Hasen & Finger, and replicated only sometimes successfully by subsequent artists, the black sable cowl with the laid-back, feline-supremely-pissed ears works wonders to give criminals a preview of what’s headed their way when this black cat crosses their paths.

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Ted Grant, undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World. In the real world, only Rocky Marciano can make such a claim. A man who can reign for 20 years as World Heavyweight Champ against all comers and retire undefeated surely has what it takes to put on a cat costume and bust the chops of evil-doers. I’m picturing a long-term contract in the zenith of his career between Ted and Moxie Cola, as their sole celebrity spokesperson. ‘Cause Ted’s got bushels of moxie. 

Ted Grant is a bruiser, a womanizer and at times a heel. But he’s also smarter than he’s given credit for. People forget, and in light of some characterizations of Ted it’s not hard to forget, that when he was forced to leave college due to money shortages after the death of his father, he was looking at going pre-Med. Instead, he had to take whatever work he could get to make a living, and his natural athleticism led to a career as a professional boxer. I prefer his take on the business in his origin story to later, rope-a-dope versions of him rife with ‘Dese’ and Dems’. Not that the punchdrunk, washed up boxer isn’t one way he could have gone. But my favorite versions of Wildcat, as a young man and as an older man, is a street fighter with a quick mind to go with his quick fists. To be the kind of ring general who can retire undefeated, it’s not a real stretch to see Ted in this light. Some heroes are brilliant scientists, Ted is a brilliant tactician of the sweet science. He may not have become a doctor, but Wildcat operates with the skill of a pugilistic surgeon with his talent, skill, natural ability and many years of ring and crime fighter combat experience. See Reason 8 below.

Modern era rendition of Wildcat by the excellent Stephen Sadowski (Who I once dissed for his first renderings of Wildcat, not knowing he was sharing a JSA chat room with me and other fans. Stephen, if you ever read this, just want to say…your tenure on the title proved me all kinds of wrong. Your Ted is excellent.)

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Long before UFC, Ted was mixing boxing, martial arts and tumbling into his own distinct Wildcat style. He was the Beta test for Ultimate Fighter competitions.

Wildcat had a good Rogues Gallery that added to his role of hero. It was small: Golden/Yellow Wasp. Huntress. Sportsmaster. Solomon Grundy. But each villain came back time and again, sharing the stick-to-it attitude of Wildcat. They were all in it for the long haul, and since Ted’s fighting the offspring and protégés of most of these scofflaws, Ted’s outlasted 3/4’s of his old fan club.

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JSA #9 & #10 written by David Goyer & Geoff Johns and drawn by Stephen Sadowski, 2000. Wildcat gets sidelined due to a broken arm sustained in a previous battle alongside the rest of his team mates in the re-formed Justice Society. While taking a relaxing soak in the tub and flirting with Catwoman over the phone, Ted’s holding down the fort by his lonesome when the Injustice Society picks this unguarded moment to attack the JSA HQ. That means the IS, with members Johnny Sorrow (teleportation/gaze of death), Geomancer (earth manipulation), Tigress (Olympian-caliber fighter), Blackbriar Thorn (druid), Killer Wasp (electrical blasts), Count Vertigo (equilibrium powers) and Icicle (freeze ray/blasts) v.s. an injured-list, middle-aged non-powered crime fighter wearing an Egyptian cotton bath towel and the home court advantage. How fair is -this-, right? Not very, if you’re the Injustice gang. Professor Ted takes them to school, turning tables, pitting their powers against their own team mates, and going punch-for-punch when he has to. In the end, Johnny Sorrow alone affects the escape and only Ted is left standing amongst the debris of JSA mementos flattened in the battle, and the vanishing human detritus that was once a super villain invasion force. All this, and tough-guy dialogue throughout! ‘Not in -my- litter box, sugarpuss!’ ‘Huh…guess you came back for a second helping of whup-ass.’ ‘You wouldn’t last five minutes in a good, old-fashioned knuckle-duster!’ wildcatsplash

 

Combining reasons 1 and 8 above,  Wildcat is the perfect nostalgic-into-modern Noir Hero. He says what he thinks, isn’t afraid to become physical when necessary even against stiff odds, and he unapologetically exemplifies the mores and mannerisms of an earlier, simpler, non-PC time.

Ted has been mentor/trainer to several costumed adventurers (Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Black Canary) and thanks to a mystic spell or curse cast on him sometime in the 1940’s, he has 9 lives. Which accounts for why he’s pushing 90 but is still in his mid-50’s. It sets up a nice man-out-of-his-time element to Ted’s story, and still makes more sense than the current Batman continuity that says a guy in his…late 20’s?…raised a partner from Robin into the adult Nightwing, plus started the partnership of Batman & Robin with Jason Todd, then Tim Drake, then Damien Wayne. wildcatMike WieringorobinBatman can mentor until he has a Bat-League of Justice, but he must have only spent two months with each partner because HE CANNOT GROW OLD! Ted can be a mentor to just about anyone worthy of the title ‘fighter’ and doesn’t care about his age.

Unlike the current DC Comics continuity, which mostly ignores or tries to reinvent their Golden Age  heroes, I love these senior statesmen of the superhero set and their legacy. Ted Grant’s is one of the richest of those stories, and having  unique bit of his history for my very own made this a great holiday season.

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From ‘Batman/Wildcat’ & ‘Catwoman/Wildcat’ mini-series by great Sergio Cariello.

 

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Another Wildcat Christmas present from Mike Curry, drawn by the uber-talented Dirk Grobb! Love the mean cat countenance!

May your Yuletide Season be blessed! Back soon with the first ‘Monkeybread and Popcorn’ for 2016.

Some ‘Apes’, it seems, are more equal than others: Return to the Planet of the Apes

 

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“Get your stinking paws off my Saturday morning groove, you dang, dirty ape!”*

(*Amended for Saturday morning cartoon language parameters.)

I recently watched, for the first time, the entire run of the short-lived ‘Return to the Planet of the Apes’ animated series that aired on NBC Saturday mornings in 1975. A big ‘Thank you!’ to my friend and authority on all things PotA, Michael Curry, for lending me his DVD set. These 13 half-hour episodes were produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises in association with 20th Century Fox Television, and based on the novel ‘Planet of the Apes’ by Pierre Boulle. It was something of a last gasp of greatness for the original PotA franchise, following soon after the CBS TV series folded its tent and the finale to the run of five theatrical films. Seeing it through adult eyes is never going to be quite the same as seeing it as a kid, but I came away chuckling at some of the content, while being pleasantly surprised at the overall story-telling in these old cartoons.

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Many ‘Apes’ fans decry the series as a travesty, a missed opportunity, or monkey poo on a stick. But it did have some positive aspects, and even some truly deep plot elements for a kid’s show. If you’re going to make a children’s Saturday morning cartoon based on a sci-fi story of human heroes living in a hostile environment ruled by large, scary and numerous non-human beings, there should be some depth. (Insert admiring comment about ‘Land of the Lost’ here.) For those of you who may find the ‘Return’ run groan-worthy, I’ve included some captioned stills with humorous (hopefully) satirical commentary. Joel, Mike and the ‘Bots are not the only ones who can give MST3Kisms! Because, well, ‘Return’ lends itself well to that, just as the PotA’s theatrical releases were all lampoonable in the pages of ‘Crazy’ and ‘Mad Magazine’.

But overall, my review comes to praise this side note of PotA lore, not to bury it. And that begins with the talent behind the production. The episodes were directed by Doug Wildey, an artist and writer perhaps best known for the animated series, ‘Jonny Quest’. Which is a shame, because Wildey had a large body of work in comic books and comic strips. On paper or on an animation cel, Wildey knew how to tell a story, and it shows. He didn’t content himself with supervising episodes that stood alone and never impacted the course of events. As the series progressed, events and characters from previous episodes became important plot points of the current episode. There were ‘what has come before’ intros, but if you were a kid in 1975 and you missed an episode, you might find yourself at a bit of a loss as you viewed the newest installment. “Wait a dog-gone minute! Where did they get an airplane???” It’s a pretty sophisticated plot they put together, and it doesn’t patronize its intended young audience by insulting their intelligence.coolnovrpoa23

The production was helmed by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, the folks who did such wonderful work on ‘The Pink Panther’ cartoons. I wouldn’t consider them lightweight talent in the field of animation. They may have just been in an unfamiliar field here, working on an action-adventure-science fiction series with a lesser emphasis on humor. Intentional humor, anyway. Still, while some of the animated sequence were underwhelming (read, ‘Bad!’), check out the introduction art. Also look closely at most of the background work, which has a richness that the animated figures often lack. Some of the animated art also rises to excellence, but seems pretty uneven in quality. And in cost-saving moves, bits were re-used and shown over…and over…and over. Of course, all TV animation producers did that in 1975. Even those with proven action-adventure track records, like Filmation and Hanna-Barbera did it. Here, though, it borders on tedium as presented in the DePatie-Freleng style.coolnovrpoa19

Some critics said it was a shame DePatie-Freleng Enterprises didn’t have enough budget to show much/any real action sequences. That may well have been the case, but consider what their material: Hostile armed gorillas hunting down, fighting, shooting at, and/or capturing unarmed, outnumbered human heroes. Let’s face it, on Saturday morning TV in 1975, you were not going to be given PotA’s movie elements like a big, sweeping & lethal human round-up (instead we see the aftermath of captured humans), taxidermied humans in a museum, or humans lashing out violently at the forces trying to subjugate them (this only took place in one episode I can think of, and was very docile in the handling). Even the mutated subterranean humans of ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ are cleansed into the robed and psionic Underdwellers for the cartoon. And they seem to worship a large tree rather an H-bomb. The genocidal zealot Dr. Zaius is revised into a kinder & gentler leader of the simian society, or at least a fair judge when it comes to weighing his constituent’s feelings against actions to be taken on handling the Human Problem. Action was relegated to heroes battling against elements, time, weather and the looming threat of apes in power trying to apprehend them. Given that playbook, DePatie-Freleng did pretty well. The pace is slow and thoughtful, much slower than the films or TV show. But that adds to the more mature-than-your-average-kiddie show element being crafted.

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While the creative folks may not have been able to plumb the movie action depths, they went to that well for some satirical elements, like a David Brinkley-type ape delivering the televised news reports, and mentions of great works of art like the Ape version of the ‘Mona Lisa’ and simian society send-ups of ‘William Apespeare’ works and the crime drama film, ‘The Apefather’. They also used elements of the TV series, the original novel and some of the film characters freely. The simian culture here is at a tech level more the way Boulle imagined, a near-20th Century level of development with some things based on discovered ‘ancient (human) technology’. Ron Brent and Nova are characters from the film adaptations, and they are major recurring characters in the cartoon. An interesting plot element is that the astronaut crew of the cartoon, Bill Hudson, Jeff Allen and Judy Franklin, were on a space mission in the year 1976 when their craft, The Venturer, is suddenly swept into a time vortex and deposited on Earth of 3979 (though our heroes do not at first realize the planet they’ve impacted with is Future Earth). They encounter Nova, who has relics of an astronaut named Ron Brent. Our heroes later learn that Brent was born in the year 2079, and though he landed on Future Earth before them and has been there for some 20 years, he’s clearly from their own future. They briefly ponder how this is possible. The time paradoxes are explained well enough to get the point across, and to an audience who probably didn’t know yet what a ‘time paradox’ was. Nor the ramifications of a rupture in the space-time continuum…Great Scott! That was still a decade into the future!coolnovrpoa16

I also liked the music used on ‘Return’, which was a distinctive score by Dean Elliott based on the Jerry Goldsmith cinematic ‘Apes’ original. Elliott was assisted by Eric Rogers on this project, and they later went on to compose and conduct the music for the 1978 ‘New Adventures of the Fantastic Four’ animated series. The music in ‘Return’ is perhaps more subtle than the films, but it evokes the right flavor in the opening credits and more than sets the tone for the story unfolding.coolnovrpoa11.jpg

With all these positive vibes going for it, one might think this was a legendary entry into Saturday morning cartoon fare. Well…not so much. ‘Hated’ would be too broad a brush, ‘beloved’ too narrow. ‘Underappreciated’ seems juuuust right. Some fans state, and it’s a great point, that they were hugely disappointed when the live action CBS series was cancelled, and that ‘Return’ gave them a chance to have a more fulfilling ending to the ‘Apes’ TV adventures. Without giving too much away, the 13 episodes -do- end on a positive, world-changing note. But the cartoon had some problems, and time has not been kind.coolnovrpoa9

The animation overall…the part of making things move fluidly, of forms smoothly walking, talking, manipulating weapons, tools, a piece of toast…was lacking. Filmation always struck me as the most proficient Saturday morning producer at getting this right, and I would love to see what they might have done with the ‘Apes’. If HB could have rewound to their ‘Jonny Quest’ animation era and applied that dynamic to ‘Return’, it would have been equally impressive. In contrast to what couldabeen, the herky-jerky DePatie-Freleng style here gets pretty annoying, and it nearly devolves into the ‘Clutch Cargo’ and ‘Space Angel’ use of moving still figures across a background to imitate animation. Or the early Marvel ‘toons that did the same thing, but with ‘Return’ lacking the terrific Kirby graphics to give it charm. To younger generations raised in an era of computer animation, the vintage ‘Apes’ cartoon must look like something the housecat dragged in, retched on, and then tossed out the pet flap.coolnovrpoa2

Another area we’ve perhaps become spoiled regarding is voice talent. Even the most basic kid fare today seems voiced by very talented actors, most of them from TV and movies, and most adept at acting on-camera. There were many consummate voice actors in 1975, veterans that had been in the business for decades, and it showed. Apparently, they all had other things to do when the casting call went out for RtPotA. Otherwise, the heroes and heroines would not sound like slightly talkative blocks of wood. One exception is Henry Corden as General Urko. See my comment about consummate pros above. He must have been the only one not too hungover from a weekend barbeque to show up for Monday auditions. However, my friend Mike Curry pointed out, Corden was the voice of Fred Flintstone after the original, Alan Reed, passed away. And sometimes, just sometimes, when General Urko gets pithy or upset, you can hear Fred, minus the Jackie Gleason inflections. The uncredited actor doing the voice of long-marooned astronaut/chrononaut Ronald Brent also shines, but I don’t know if it’s because he’s that good, or just so much better than the other oaks in this petrified voice forest. Zira, Cornelius and Zaius all have passable talent doing the voices. Nova is OK, but since she has fewer bits of dialogue than Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, it’s hard to tell if she’s any good. The three human heroes of our tale, however…the ones who should have voices that allow us to get angry alongside these characters, to empathize with their plight, to feel their excitement or dread…seem to be in a trance-like state, as if their pot-smoking days in the 60’s never quite wound down. In text it would be like this: “Jeff. Look out. That monster bird.” “I see it Bill. It’s coming.” “Judy if you can reach Jeff. You might pull him out of the way.” “I will try Bill.” “Judy. Grab my hand.” “Did it.” “Whew that was close.” “I told you we would be lucky to come back alive.” “You did but we had to take the chance.” “Ditto. I think I broke a nail.” “Darn.” So one of the most realistic elements of human persecution in this ‘Apes’ production seems to have been made by the casting coach, who gave the simian roles any to actor marginally capable of delivering a line, and tossed whoever was left in as the series’ leads! Oy.coolnovrpoa4

Either of these two vital animation elements, elevated to Passable quality, would have made the series quite a minor epic, I think. The lack of competency in both is a double-tap of death. Some also think the episode story elements went too far afield of normal ‘Apes’ tales, became too kid-ified. I’ve few qualms about this; mostly, the audience was composed of kids, save for a few parents who may have been roped into watching with their wee ones, and fossil folks like you and me, forty years later still watching and talking about the show. Hint: It was never made specifically for us. I still like seeing a giant ape-deity going nine rounds with a giant reptile-bird monster in one episode. For me, it just added to the fun.coolnovrpoa7.jpg

If you are a fan of the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ films, give the ‘Return’ run a shot. Just be patient with it. If you are a fan of the new ‘Apes’ film franchise, go back and watch ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’, ‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’, ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’, and ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes’. Maybe YouTube some ‘Planet of the Apes’ TV series, or, heck, you’ve come this far…just rent and watch all 14 of these bad boys, too. Then, if you have any affinity for What Came Before the current CGI PotA’s renditions, take ‘Return’ for a spin. Just be patient with it. And, as always, try to retain a little bit of that 8 year old you, and watch it through their eyes.coolnovrpoa5

I’ll leave you with a few more Words of Apedom. I had way too much fun with these captions. Back soon with different stuff.

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Life After Villainy

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Here’s a question: What’s the backup plan if being a supervillain doesn’t pan out?

October is a villain-centric sort of season. It truly is. What other time of the year do we masquerade as those wily, attractive Bad Boys & Bad Girls with such gleeful abandon? Sure, sure. Many choose to be superheroes, Disney Princesses/heroines and admirable real-life or fictional characters. But just as many relish the chance to empathize, at least a bit, with Dracula. With Frankenstein’s Monster. Or his Bride. With Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees, and Loki, and the Wicked Witch of the West, and Jigsaw, and The Joker, and Catwoman. And once we’ve walked a mile in their twisted footwear, we often have a better understanding of why they are the way they are. Besides that, it’s often just more darn fun to be lawless, chaotic and unpredictable.

I got to play Grand Vizier Jafar last year as a part of the local library’s Fall Fest float, ‘A Salute to Classic Disney’. Most of the adult volunteers were Bad Guys and Bad Girls, because, well… a middle aged Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland is just sad. The youths and kids played the heroes and heroines, as it should be. So naturally, I had to watch ‘Aladdin’ a few times to get the voice inflections and expressions of Jafar down.

"I'll get you, street rat, and your little lamp, too!"
“I’ll get you, street rat, and your little lamp, too!”

And it wasn’t hard to get his POV, too. First, most of the classic villains become that way in part due to their circumstances. Second, the main differences between heroes and villains is that heroes deny their baser emotions and instincts, villains fall to them or are pushed toward them. OK, or wildly embrace them. In comics, in literature, in film, the villain has often put in the hard work, the planning, the stringent implementation of The Plan by which they will beat the odds stacked against them in the game of Life and become winners. They optimistically visualize that then…finally…they can exact deserved vengeance on those who bedeviled them in their humble beginnings, and also rise to be magnanimous, beneficent dictators. Or some such dream of the rosy future that usually, even if success is achieved, turns out not all it was cracked up to be. I call it The Megamind Principle.

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But lo, there is the villain strata, at least in comic books, of those who never taste the glory. Who never successfully implement The Plan. Those who go cheap on the materials or palm-greasing during the planning phase and wind up doing 30 consecutive life sentences at Blackgate or Belle Rive or The Vault or The Raft or Arkham. Or those poor souls beneath imprisonment, who are so lame or weak that the heroes trounce them, leave them in a street heap, and just let them regain consciousness to simply slink off unarrested. Many, either incarcerated or ignored, must surely wish they had another line of gainful employment to fall back on!

How bout a Backup Plan to their stunted career of Supervillainy?!! Something in the wings to prevent lapsed mortgage payments and, just maybe, something with a dental plan! Surely anyone with the bold initiative and intestinal fortitude to face off against Superman or Batman or Captain America or Thor, armed only with their wits and a bag of gadgets, has some marketable skill sets. And so, here are some possibilities for all those Dr. Lights and Beetles out there ready to trade up for some serious dough, fewer cranial fractures, and a life outside the penal system:

Product Spokesperson!

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“Either let me lead the Secret Six or take all my 9 lives now!”

Pro athletes do it, even long-retired ones. Better, even former pro athlete’s who’ve served time do it! Why not give supervillains a shot at shilling? Even a mediocre C-List criminal who touted the value of ADT security systems, all the while inferring they were often the instruments of his or her downfall, could likely sell a few. Catman once earned some litter cash huckstering for Hostess, and he’s not nearly as cool as Batman (or wasn’t before CM’s 2000’s reboot), or even as cool as another feline-themed Batman villain/ally, Catwoman. There could even be a venue here for villains with unusual appearances, especially if they sang the product’s praises only to have a bout of hard luck at the ad end. Cue *Wonk-Wonk-Wooooooonk* humorous sound effect. ‘Aw, poor Modok, he never catches a break. Hey, I’m hungry!’

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Talk Show Host!

This one could employ multiple supervillains. Imagine ‘The View’ transformed into ‘The Crew’ with former villain allies sitting down to parse the current topics of interest with a live studio audience!

Queen Bee: Later in the program, we’ll be talking with Poiszzon Ivy on keeping your fruit treeszz protected over the coming winter monthszz. But firzzst, let’szz take a look at toyszz szzhaping up to be the big szzellerszz thiszz holiday szzeaszzon!

Toyman: Oooooo, some of these are lethal! Lethal! I approve!

Puzzler: I’m really disappointed, Bea. You have action figures, you have some fashion dolls, you have car race sets here. You have some first-person shooter games, for the little Deathstrokes watching. But what do you not have? I’ll tell you what. You don’t have anything to challenge a child’s mind. Their problem-solving abilities.

Queen Bee: Szztill, there’szz a niczze variety. Let’szz szzee how they hold up to playwear. Giganta?

Giganta: Grrrrrrr…. *SMASH!!!* That’s how, Bea. Not too well.

'Dear Coco, Thanks for letting me co-host instead of killing you! XOXOXO D.P.'
‘Dear Coco, Thanks for letting me co-host instead of killing you! XOXOXO D.P.’

But for villains best showcased outside the group dynamic, perhaps a nighttime talk show host, or co-host slot would work. What celebrity could resist trading barbs with The Joker? Poisoned, razor-tipped barbs, maybe, but still. Or nattering about their latest film with Deadpool? Oh, sure…he’s a hero -now-, with a movie coming out. Well. Kind of a hero.

Corporate Research!

For supervillains with a scientific or engineering degree or three, corporate R&D could be quite lucrative and still inflict all manner of evils on the world! Why risk breaking the law and facing indictments when you could do more global damage from the cushy protection of a major corporate structure than you ever could as a techno-terrorist loner??? Recruiting would also be simple and straightforward. ‘Are you a brilliant but unappreciated super genius who refuses to be limited by the paltry strictures of international law and human morality? Do you log 80 lab hours a week to produce the next generation of your patented Death Ray or Questionable Food Preservative? Then take heart! MONSTRATO WANTS YOU!!!’

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     ‘Our Corpse Corp Employee of the Month’

Political Career!

Supervillains would most likely have to up most of their diabolical and despicable games to qualify, but for those who manage it, what a natural fit! Obviously, the poster child for this concept is Dr. Doom, ruler and despot of his own sovereign nation. But who says that Mad Dog wouldn’t be a dandy elected Animal Warden for a small community?

Latveria Polls report: 100 Percent Voter Turnout, Unanimous Re-Election!
Latveria Polls report: 100 Percent Voter Turnout, Unanimous Re-Election!

Or that The Calculator couldn’t hold office as County Treasurer? And who could resist voting for Mayor Mindworm or Representative Brainwave? No one, that’s who! At least…not for long. Your knack for holding a grudge against those of the Opposing Party and deploying duplicity to cover your actual sinister agenda may come in handy, but they would be balanced by the need to also assure your constituency of your legitimate efforts to serve their best interests. In short, the hardest part of this will job would be faking sincerity and humility. Once you’ve mastered those, the rest is cream cheese!

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Superhero!

This one might be a little harder to achieve, but if you have red in your ledger and know some former superhero foes with Boy Scout or Girl Scout complexes, you might actually qualify for their regular duty roster after a bit of convincing. But it won’t be easy. Every plot twist and scripting device will make readers think that maybe…just maybe…you’re pulling a ruse. Or backsliding in your reformation. Plus, if anyone in the storyline has an appointment with the Grim Reaper, think about it.

Write, "I'm sorry for being an Asgardian butthead." on the chalkboard 1,000 times.
Write, “I’m sorry for being an Asgardian butthead.” on the chalkboard 1,000 times.

Are they going to kill off Captain Wonder Abs, Mega Model Maid, or the villain formerly known as Deplor-O? Just keep it in perspective. Because if you play your cards right, you could follow in the trailblazing redemptive footsteps of Wonder Man, Black Widow, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. And Plastic Man. Oh, yeah. If you do go this route, best to apply at Marvel or an independent comic company, not DC. Enterprising groups of villains have been known to form their own superteams with new codenames and defect to the hero side on the sly, avoiding the whole ‘Will the Ultra Society of Justice truly accept me, given my checkered past?’ issue. Y’know, T.O.R., the Thunderbolts Option of Rehabilitation. Which leads right into….

Working for the Government!

Perks! Health care! Life insurance! Overtime! Free ammunition! Civil service jobs for supervillains are definitely out there, and you can even afford to be choosy. You may not even have to curb your latent maniacal tendencies very much, because some of the wetworks & covert ops organizations will love you just the way you are. The best of this lot would be something like SHIELD, though you’ll have to clean up your act some. Unless you can find an imbedded HYDRA cell to glom onto. blogshieldagentsSHIELD expects heroism and honor and other laughable, lovely intangibles. But they do care about their people and they will try to come back to get you. Or at least bring your body back home for a decent burial. The worst of this lot is something akin to The Suicide Squad. Think ‘The Dirty Dozen’ coupled with metahuman abilities within your own less-than-stable ranks, and most likely in the opposition force standing against you. Plus unlimited plausible deniability for your bosses if you get caught in espionage against another branch of your own government, seemingly illicit acts ordered by your superiors, or spying on foreign soil. They pay in 3 hots, a cot, and (if you survive) shaving some jail time off your 30 life sentences. They also tend to booby-trap you so that, should you make a run for it or don’t hop high enough when they say ‘Frog!’, they can dead you with a button click. If you’re desperate, hey…they’re an option. If not, keep checking those want ads!blogThe Suicide Squad

Casino Owner/Manager!

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Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen! Land on a classic JSA Member and the payout is double!

Granted, you must locate appropriately for this or else you’re a bookie or running an illegal game, and you can end up behind bars for that as easily as you can for all those felony charges you still maintain your innocence regarding. But whereas once you had the dual choices of Atlantic City or Las Vegas, now with Indian casinos, floating casinos and all stripe of legalized games of chance, your options  are much greater. Or you can throw the dice like Roulette and The House, go for the big stakes of metahuman pit-fighting, and hope you don’t come up snake-eyes. Ideally, supervillains with probability field influence could make this option work the best. Or telepathic sorts. Even mystics could ply their abilities to make some green running the tables. Given that you’ll want to attract many, many customers, and that the casino crowds acclimated to Vegas have a pretty high tolerance for glitz, glamour and spectacle, you should probably play up your former villain career as PR. To the hilt. Wait staff, dealers and showgirls/guys calling you ‘Master’ or ‘Mistress’ in front of the patrons is a nice touch, and lots of conspicuous appearances on the gaming floor, in costume or in very expensive tailored clothing, will be required. Why? Because if the customer wins, he or she has, in effect, overcome a supervillain attempt to take their money. They’re superheroes! Sort of. If they lose, well…to be parted from their money, it took a true supervillain. Who could fault a person for being ripped off by Commander Chaos, known to have nearly fought The Star Corps to a draw on at least two separate occasions? Winning with extra kudos or losing with honor against a vastly superior predator. Much better than just dropping the kid’s college fund over at Bally’s. This option also allows you to decorate with flair. Make the place look like your last Lair of Villainy! Adorn the slot machines, roulette wheels and card tables with superheroic images of your former foes. And, if the gig works out, you might even hire a few former associates from the villainy trenches to be your debt collec—uuuuuhhhmmmm, Security personnel. Like—-

Security Services!

Imagine hiring the whole Royal Flush Gang to enforce your casino rules. And call in markers. And they would be so willing to 1) not work a job where they get their butts handed to them by The Justice League, the Justice Society, The Outsiders, the Teen Titans or The Inferior Five (Again) and 2) get paid (since their last real heist only netted free Arby’s gift cards), that they would be loyal and easy-to-please underlings.

"Counting cards again, Willie? Fer shame! You can walk out with chips, or hands. Which'll it be?"
“Counting cards again, Willie? Fer shame! You can walk out with chips, or hands. Which’ll it be?”

Minions of other still-operative supervillans or organizations would also be a vast source of manpower. Let Biff the AIM Field Agent see a couple of his classmates from Minion Night School blown up by faulty megablast rifles defending the HQ against the Avengers, or decapitated by an AIM director unhappy with their latest evil evaluation, and most would be happy to join your merry band of working stiffs with viable upward career mobility. Working example: Bob the Agent of Hydra becoming executive assistant to Deadpool. Bob may not be getting rich, and Bob may not like dried blood and body parts cleanup duty, but Bob is also living to see another day on a consistent basis.

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Game Show Contestants!

Face it, former supervillains have to be self-sufficient, goal-oriented folks who are probably smarter than most of the other people in the room. Not wiser, just smarter. Put some of that brain power to work competing for mounds of cash and fabulous prizes! Imagine the sort of hauls The Riddler could make in this venue! Or even the B-Team version, Cluemaster! The Jackal wasn’t the most dangerous foe Spider-Man ever faced, but he was still a brilliant guy. Let him get a whiff of the prizes awaiting him for winning the Sudden Death round and see if he’s not on point like a beagle down a rabbit trail! And, even if the minor mental malevolence of Headcase isn’t up to the game show challenge, chances are he can just steal the cache of prizes and consolation gifts, setting his new criminal empire on a foundation of a decade supply of Turtle Wax and Rice-A-Roni! Maybe, though, you aren’t the brightest crayon in the Supervillain Coloring Pack. bloggameshowcontestantsMaybe you looked terrific in the dark and dreary spandex of your villain ensemble, but needed cue cards to string together the first line of a rambling Bad Girl monologue. Or to deliver withering comebacks using more than monosyllabic words. Worry not, for the world also needs—

Game Show Hosts!

Criswell said, “If you look good and you speak well, people will swallow anything.” If you have that first part down, but a teeny bit of trouble with the second…well, that’s what they make cue cards and headset prompts for! A new and entertaining game show can be a very lucrative vehicle to find yourself attached to. The sponsors! The supplication of Network Executives anxious to keep rating up and you, the indispensable host, happy! And—dare I say it—The Nighttime Version of the game!!! blogmadhattergameshowhostIf you’re brought in early enough during production development, you could even incorporate old deathtrap devices from your former career as elements of the game. Made into less-than-lethal traps, of course. Or not…ratings -are- the number one priority here, ends justifying means and all that when it comes to the television industry.

So arise, downtrodden legions of unsuccessful supervillain masterminds everywhere! Shrug off your bulky laser visors and eternally-malfunctioning gyro wings, dress business casual, and bring your unique talents to the mart of competitive commerce! Revenge is a dish best served by making Wombat Woman and Lightbeam Lass come to you for backup with your Secretly Funded Government Liaison Group, or by forcing Major Hercules to pose shaking hands with Freshman Senator Nukestorm for a political photo op. Try a new career path! You have nothing to lose but future opportunities to mutter, ‘Curses! Foiled again!’

Special Holiday Edition (‘Cause Halloween IS a Special Holiday) Part Deux

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‘Famous Monsters Magazine’ editor Forry J. Ackerman fighting over a box of breakfast cereal with Franken Berry, 1972. He won Most Humorous Character at World Con that year. Franken Berry, not Forry!

Part Two of the Special Monkey Bread & Popcorn Holiday Edition! Let me channel my Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine inner goblin, put on my Uncle Forry glasses and take you on a tour of the Ackermansion of Films I need to see annually around the Halloween season. Not saying that these are the best fright films, not saying they are the scariest. Just saying they bring me such a spirit of autumn feeling, I’ve watched each one many years running (or as many years as they have been around) to get me into the All Hallows festive mood. In Part One, I revealed what a closet anthologist I am. If it’s a spooky anthology movie, chances are I’ve given it a spin or three. In fact, I am hoping that 2015’s ‘Tales of Halloween’ will be something I can add to my yearly watch list. But 10 tales of terror told in the anthology framework seems terribly ambitious. Actually, rushed is what it sounds like. Still, it has lots of genre veterans sprinkled throughout, so I must give it a try. So what if it has a 5.8 on the IMDb ratings? What does the general public know! It’s been named “the best horror anthology since Trick ‘r Treat” by Fangoria Magazine and “among the best Halloween-themed horror movies ever made” by DailyDead, due to its interwoven stories as presented by a team of top modern horror directors.

And, since these pundits have brought up ‘Trick ‘r Treat’, we’ll begin there!

“Good evening, we’re from the Last Church of the Old Ones. Have you heard the Good News about our lord and master Cthulhu? Because there really isn’t any!”

6. Trick ‘r Treat, 2007. A ghastly tragedy on Halloween many years previous to the events of the film help bind the stories and characters together, as does a shabby little masked street urchin named Sam. Divided into an intro segment, the four stories, and an epilogue bit, this movie flows very well from one chapter to another, the characters of all actually interacting at times before going on to their own violent ends…erm, destinies. One tale involves a father (Dylan Baker) teaching his son to be true to the spirit and traditions of Halloween, and not to just be content in the modern celebrations of the moment. Another follows a group of young ladies heading to a costume party wherein they hope to initiate their youngest member (Anna Paquin) into revelries she has not yet experienced. Yeah, she’s kinda sorta the virginal good girl hero of the piece…until a predator begins stalking her as she hunts for a good time to remember this Halloween by. Another story deals with a savant girl, Rhonda (Samm Todd), invited out to a spooky locale rife with local legend by a group of her school friends more intent on having fun at her expense.

Rhonda sings a rousing number,
Rhonda sings a rousing number, “I’m Just a Witch in a Gilded Cage”.

And the final story centers on a reclusive old bus driver (Brian Cox) and his dog scaring away any children brave enough to knock on his door (and stealing their treat bags in the process!). These are small and personal stories, and mostly, they do not play out as I had initially imagined. And there are genuine scares mixed throughout. There are also a few actors sprinkled in here from one of my favorite spooky TV shows, ‘Dead Like Me’, so that in itself is like finding a caramel apple in your goodie bag. There are also some Halloween traditions I’d never heard of before as part of the storyline. And they are traditions I won’t break in future, because… well, you never know who’s keeping count! Director Michael Dougherty based the Sam character on a school animation project he did called ‘Season’s Greetings’, and it is a worthy precursor to the film. Viewings of the movie demand a viewing of the short animation film (an extra on the DVD) as well. It’s worth the watch just for ‘Season’s Greetings’ alone.

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7. Bubba Ho-Tep, 2003. Horror-comedy, that razor-blade-in-an-apple thin line of movie making that allows any director ample opportunity to slip and cut his or her own jugular. Or inspire the critics to do it. To work, these need balance, a certain kind of creepy coolness, and heart. This film has all three in abundance, thanks to director Don Coscarelli working from an original short story by Joe R. Lansdale.

“Keep up, Mr. President. ‘Cause this ain’t Dallas, he ain’t Priscilla, and we ain’t losin’ this one.”

Know how sometimes, you can feel the enjoyment the actors and crew have making a movie because it’s contagious? This is one of those. Just the general plot makes you smile. Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) is still alive, or as close as he can come to it, relegated to residing in a low-cost East Texas nursing home. Don’t worry, all is explained regarding just how the heck Elvis could still be with us, and it actually seems feasible. One of his fellow inmates is Jack, played beautifully by Ossie Davis, an African-American senior citizen who claims he’s John F. Kennedy after the CIA changed his race and dumped him into obscurity. The two men form an alliance when they begin to suspect that their neighbors in the old folk’s home are not meeting their demise from natural causes, but are being systematically fed upon by a displaced ancient Egyptian mummy. Many directors have utilized remote settings as great backdrops for their horror stories, but the use of a retirement home here is unusual and perfect. The shadow of melancholy that day-to-day existence in such a place casts, and the impact on its residents, resonates for those us of feeling the weight of years. It’s scary in this way before any monster ever hits the screen! Only Bruce Campbell could play Elvis here, and does so with equal parts regret, pathos, humor and the mojo even a deposed King of Rock and Roll could muster. Unlikely heroes, unlikely threat, and very human heroes pitted against a hellish immortal without mercy. Good stuff abounds.blogbubbak5suux4j3fvxmr7oyjie

8. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971. Yes, this made my list, and no it’s not a horror movie by any stretch of the imagination. The whole film didn’t make the list, actually, and would have been easier to just omit. As a kid I could ignore that first three-quarters of the flick. A lot. I still can. But the end…the Halloweenish climax cannot be ignored, what with a fully realized and patriotic witch on a broomstick, flying over the English night skies to do battle against German soldiers during the Battle of Britain.

“I say, you lot! You’ve brought a Schmeisser to a Wizard duel!”

And not with the method she uses to fight back against the invaders. Now, every year, I dust off my copy and watch, at the very least, that climactic battle scene. If you have never seen it, stop here. But if you have, then you already know where I’m going. Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a cunning witch-in-training, decides to use her supernatural powers to aid her nation in a desperate hour. She sets out to accomplish this task with the aid of three inventive children who have been evacuated from the London Blitz. Joined by Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson), the head of Miss Price’s witchcraft training correspondence school, the crew uses an enchanted bed to travel into a fantasy land and foil encroaching German troops. The horror of this time in British history has been used before as a backdrop to emphasize the need for fantasy to thrive, especially in the hearts of children, no matter how bleak the world spins about them. But I don’t think it’s ever been as inspiring to me as it is here. When German troops make a raid on the English coast to carry out guerilla tactics in aid of the air war, Miss Price puts on her pointed hat (actually in this case, a Brodie  helmet) and weaves an enchantment over the relic-filled castle nearby. Relic-filled in that it has displays of past great warriors in the British cause: Suits of Medieval armor and weapons, cavalier uniforms and swords, and arms and suits of the Colonial period. The spell brings to life an animated army of defenders to meet the invading force, and though we the audience are not generally afraid of the risen ghosts of campaigns long past, we do feel the fear of the modern soldiers as they slowly realize…this is no trick.

“Was ist los?”

This is a force of unreality. Mostly, we cheer as the wolf pack of aggression finds that their vaunted weapons of modern warfare cannot stop these supernatural defenders from their duty. Seeing the ominous line of spectral knights marching to the accompanying thrum of a Celtic chant, and lined up in the moonlit horizon all the way back to their castle, still gives me goosebumps. And if I heard that chant on an October night, I’d be nervously glancing over my shoulder. Can’t help it.

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9. The Dead Zone, 1983. This is a horror-thriller in three acts, and until recently my favorite adaptation of a Stephen King book. Middle school English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is introducing his students to ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and preparing for a fun autumn weekend with his fiance and fellow schoolteacher Sarah (Brooke Adams). But a terrible auto accident ensues and when Johnny awakens from the resulting coma, he finds that, in a blink of an eye from his perspective, five years have passed.

“Hey, I’m Walken here!”

Sarah, giving up that he would ever recover, has married another man. John’s muscles have atrophied, and he is literally faced with learning to walk all over again. As his physician, Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), helps him through physical and emotional therapy, Johnny finds that for all the coma has taken, it has also given him something in return. When he makes tactile contact with another person, he can sometimes ‘see’ elements ongoing in that person’s life. Or their past. Or their future. Incidents of his psychic insights garner public attention, and lead a local Sheriff to recruit Johnny to aid in the search for a serial killer of young women. He also encounters Senator Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), an ambitious politician with his eye on the Oval Office. What he sees in Stillson’s future causes Johnny to question exactly how much he can alter the path of tragic events yet to be, and how far he’s willing to go to prevent them. The frights here come in empathizing and identifying with Johnny’s plight…his lost love, his sense of isolation, and the toll his ability seems to drain from him whenever it manifests. Also, the power itself is scary…how much of a person’s inner feelings, personal dealings, past events and future fate would -you- be comfortable seeing, without warning? David Cronenberg directed the film and drew great performances from this impressive cast. There are many characters in this piece, given that the storyline almost splits into two separate tales halfway through, and Cronenberg does an excellent job of defining the heroes and the villains, while leaving a believable flawed, human wash over everyone. How well? When Sheen was on ‘The West Wing’, I’d halfway expect President Bartlet to suddenly chortle

“Babies! Give me babies! I looooves babies!”

and give a Stillson directive as Commander in Chief. And Chris Walken, while still Walken, has not yet developed his. Signature. *gesticulate randomly* Strange, punctuation and. Turns of phrase. (Need more cow bell!) He does a beautiful job being a decent, normal guy, and slowly evolving into a bitter, pitiable, recluse.

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10. The Monster Squad, 1987. Again, not too scary unless you’re a kid. BUT, this movie reminds you of how scary the classic monsters where when you WERE a kid. And you have fun in the rediscovery. If there is a film that ties with ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ for best horror comedy ever, it’s this one. This may be because director Fred Dekker had in mind a modern-day ‘Our Gang Meets the Monsters’ vision when he crafted this film. Grade schooler Sean (Andre Gower) is a huge fan of horror movies. They seem to be his escape while his police detective father (Stephen Macht) and housewife mother (Mary Ellen Trainor) try to make their marriage work and fend off divorce. Sean has recruited his best friend, Patrick (Robby Kiger), and a younger boy, Eugene (Michael Faustino) to form with him a Monster Club so they can meet in his treehouse, read scary comics, talk monster movies, and deny membership to Sean’s little sister, Phoebe ‘the Feeb’ (Ashley Banks). They also induct classmate and comic book reader Horace (Brent Chalem) and teen bad boy Rudy (Ryan Lambert) into their club after a bullying incident. blogmonstersquadBut then Sean’s mother buys a book at a rummage sale, an old tome written by Abraham van Helsing (who she recalls from Sean’s talk of sinister cinema as ‘the one who fights Godzilla’) and gives it to her monster-smitten kiddo. Events begin to transpire along clues written down in the book, and Sean comes to believe that a Big Bad Event is about to take place in their sleepy little town. The arrival of classic Universal monsters Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Gillman and Frankenstein’s Monster seem to validate his fears. Soon, the only thing that stands against the forces of personified Evil bent on taking over our world is a group of juvenile monster-hunters. Again, the horror comedy formula works here because the kids play, well…kids. They cuss. They have early onset battles of hormones. They say funny, smart alec things. They react to the unnatural events around them as kids would. And the monsters?

“Dispatch, gonna need a few more units on this one.”

They are played straight, and they are in 1930s-1940’s classic form. Tuxedo and opera cape for Drac, the Wolfman a tragic figure unable to stop the curse that afflicts him, the Mummy fire-kindling thin, and the Monster…the child-like creature of Karloff’s first film. Not inherently evil, just big, powerful and friendless. I never ever ever thought I would see a modern handling of the classic monsters where they were not a satire of their former selves. This movie proved me wrong. And that third ingredient, a living and beating heart, is tucked safely into this bit of celluloid, too big and too strong to be contained in the film can. Here, the grownup response to danger (Sean’s dad is a cop, and reacts with full-on 1980’s cop aggression when his kid is threatened, monsters or not!) is completely ineffective; only the kids who dream, who dare to believe, who draw power from that and from each other, are a match for these nightmare creatures.

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11. Fright Night, 1985. No offense to the 2011 remake, I enjoyed it as well. But the original film is what has been on and shall stay on my ‘Watch Before 10/31’ list since it came out on video and now DVD. Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a normal High School student, mainly interested in hanging out and trying to make out with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), getting his car running, and catching his local cable monster movie show, ‘Fright Night’, hosted by once-legendary horror actor Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall).

“But…but…this always worked in the movies!”

Peter was the consummate Van Helsing to celluloid undead everywhere in many-a B-movie fright flick. Things change for Charlie when the old abandoned house next door suddenly gets a new owner and his live-in carpenter, the pair determined to restore the manse to its former glory. But coinciding with the new owner’s arrival, a series of grisly murders begin to take place in the town. Murders in which the young female victims have their heads lopped off. When Charlie hears screams coming from the old house and then spies his neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) treating a young female guest to a double helping of fang, he comes to realize that one of the Living Dead is Living Dead Next Door! Naturally, no one believes him but his accusations cause him to register on the vampire’s radar as a potential threat. Charlie knows his nights are numbered. So he manages to get help from his reluctant school pal, ‘Evil Ed’ (Stephen Geoffreys) and Amy, and from the only vamp authority he knows residing in the area…Peter Vincent. Taken on face value up to this point, it’s a bit of a teen romp with supernatural undertones.

              “I find your lack of faith…refreshing!”

As events begin to transpire, it becomes a twisty, suspenseful ride with Sarandon showing how elusive, suave and formidable a smart and canny creature of the night can be. Beyond the surface of the script, and owing to Sarandon’s performance, you actually get the impression that this is a contest Dandridge has had to compete in before, and he would as soon not. This despite the fact he’s prevailed previously, by all appearances. He wants to feed (has no choice in this matter, he claims), endure, and be left alone. But once the die is cast and with his accuser refusing to back down, the vampire enters full predator mode and is obviously going to enjoy every horrific moment of the ruin he is about to rain down. I would not want to be in his path.

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12. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, 1943. The first Universal monster film I can remember watching as a kid. I knew who the monsters were, but only through magazine stills or clips, until this aired on some local station’s monster madness matinée when we were on vacation. And just as superhero teams sold comics because of the ‘Look, kids! All the heroes together in a single, epic story!’ appeal, this film had not just the Monster, and not just the Wolfman…but both! And the title might have used the word ‘Meet’, but that was just an adult word for ‘Beats the Fur Off’. My pre-pubescent heart was all aglow with the anticipation that only a clash of titans can kindle. And even though it’s not as fine a piece of filmmaking as the original flicks of either character, it didn’t then and doesn’t now disappoint. I simply appreciate it on a different level with my post-pubescent, glowing ticker.

*Sniff*
*Sniff* “Uhm. Do you smell burnt dog hair?”

Hapless Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), still on the trail of an end to his lycanthropy and being pursued by law enforcement officials eager to question him regarding a spate of murders, flees with his confidant, the old gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), in search of an infamous scientist who might be able to cure or permanently kill Talbot: Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The two fugitives are a bit late for a consultation, as Dr. F has come down with a debilitating case of dead. His daughter Elsa (Ilona Massey), however, points the way to her father’s castle wherein some of his research material is said to exist. There Talbot finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi), frozen solid in a block of ice. Convincing Frankenstein’s daughter to carry on her father’s research, and in the process find a permanent cure for Talbot’s monthly bouts of hypertrichosis, they set about resurrecting the machines and technology that animated the Monster originally. The Monster, however, is less than cooperative. Being frozen alive apparently makes one grumpy and rrrrready to rrrrruuuuuuumble! As a kid I recall thinking the beating…erm, meeting…of the monsters didn’t last nearly long enough before the two were interrupted by an impromptu high tide. Lugosi’s Monster (the only time he played the role) is shown to be a mute, devious, sinister brute who staggers a lot and seems to have a silent, but definitely evil, agenda. After I had sampled many other Universal monster films, including ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ precursor to this chapter of the Monster legacy, I discovered that Lugosi’s Monster was not mute, and that footage was shot with dialogue explaining that the brain of the creature was still that of the devious, sinister hunchback, Ygor. Also that he was still blind, a fate that had befallen the Monster at the conclusion of ‘Ghost’, before the iceberg struck and trapped him while killing time, waiting for a sequel. This adds tons to legitimize Lugosi’s performance, from the conniving expressions his Monster has, to the blind staggers he exhibits. All the footage that would have explained those sorts of things ended up on the editing room floor, and were then, apparently, destroyed; no copies have surfaced as of this writing, though several people involved with the production confirm that the scenes were shot.

“No evil plotting going on here, nosirree. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along… heh, heh, heh…”

Still, all these things combined to make Lugosi’s Monster even more terrifying for me as a child. Here was a Monster you did -not- want to turn your back on, and you could forget all that sympathetic child-creature junk from Karloff’s performances. I went in thinking it would probably be a clash of misunderstood monsters, and one in which I wanted to see the Monster prevail…Wolfman scared me, now it would be his chance to fear! After seeing Lugosi’s Monster, though, I was giving Talbot full ‘Sock ’em, Smokey!’ encouragements and hoping that he would put down the Monster for once and all. Or at least until the next sequel.

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13. The Lost Boys, 1987. From the clever Peter Pan reference in the title, to the cool bad boy vibe of the villains, to the geeky and brainy coolness of the heroes, to the eerie setting of a boardwalk littered with Missing Person flyers, to the ‘Who’s-the-Head-Vampire’? mystery, this movie set a standard in modernizing the vampire story for a new generation. Just like ‘Twilight’ did for the current generation, except…you know…cool. And without sparkles. An aside: I don’t dislike ‘Twilight’ and the sequels. Each generation needs their take on legendary tales and creatures. But the best takes make sense, and I’m sorry, but if I was an immortal like Edward, brought over in the early years of the 20th Century, and had been taken in by kindly Dr. Carlisle who then made me move every few years and go to High School for damn-near a century, non-stop? I’d be poking some tiny sunlight peepholes in that patriarch’s coffin.

“Frog Brothers and Sam, Inc. We slay vampires. And we’re totally available for birthday parties.”

Anyway, in 1987, young vampires wore leather, rode motorcycles, held sway over the boardwalk, and took on any comers just to see the look on their faces before they ate them. The Lost Boys of Neverland, comes to it, were not always very nice youngsters, either. Oh, sure…they could fly, and crow, and they never grew old, but their attitudes needed improving. Because boys, answerable to no one and nothing, are wild. See the book or the movie ‘Lord of the Flies’ to confirm this. This film took that premise and applied it to the Undead very successfully. The only being that could control them was the Head Vampire, the one who made them in the first place…and as to who that father or mother figure was, the movie wasn’t tellin’. That’s what the heroes (and the audience) had to figure out. Teenaged brothers Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) move with their mother (Dianne Wiest) to a small California coastal town after mom & dad divorce, their abbreviated clan taken in by their maternal Grandpa (Barnard Hughes, having a field day here as a free-spirited, aging hipster as geriatric cool as any of the younger characters…and juuust a little bit creepy, with his whole taxidermy pastime).

Grandpa knows good soda, good snacks, and how to stuff a beaver. Y'know...taxidermy.
Grandpa knows good soda, good snacks, and how to stuff a beaver. Y’know…taxidermy.

Sam meets a pair of kids his own age, the siblings running their parent’s comic book store, in nerds Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Alan (Jamison Newlander) Frog. Meanwhile angsty teen Michael pursues a mysterious girl named Star (Jami Gertz), apparently the moll of some local delinquent biker dudes led by David (Kiefer Sutherland). Turns out, David’s cyclist buddies are actually a gang of vampires intent on inducting Michael to their ranks. Luckily, the Frog Brothers claim they have noticed the signs of vampire infestation in their town for some time, and have educated themselves with only the best horror comics. Together with Sam, they set out to thwart David and his thralls by tracking down the Head Vampire, the one responsible for turning David & Company into Hell’s Angels from Hell. For, if the Head Vampire is dispatched, all those created by the H.V. will be destroyed as well. The movie is funny, but also has some genuine scares along the way. And the chase and confrontation between the reckless, powerful young vamps and the reckless, smart would-be young vampire killers is still enjoyable all these years later. As is the revelation of the Head Vampire, and the assurance that, despite the best efforts of the young, final solutions often come with the help of those a bit more experienced, and a bit wiser. The kind of people we all took for granted in our family as they watched us back ourselves into a dangerous corner, but who knew just when to intervene and keep us from real harm. Some of the means adopted for battling the undead in this movie were ones my young and reckless gaming group had already discovered in our own horror RPG (holy water in a long-range or full auto Supersoaker!), so there’s always that li’l boost of pride when the heroes use their ingenuity to come up with tactics we’d already explored.

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Honorable Mention: Thirteen seems the perfect number to end the list with, but there is one more film that, though not officially attached to my annual watches, is likely to qualify in future. It was a movie my daughter enjoyed as a kid and she infected me; s’okay, she knows good movies. Now it’s a nostalgic cornerstone for her own Halloween fandom, and, I suspect, her own Watch List. So here’s to:

Hocus Pocus, 1993. Given a high hard zerbert by the critics when it premiered, this Disney film has become a cult classic. And for good reason(s). Bette Midler belting out a bewitching brand of vileness in song. Witches who ‘devour’ children to keep themselves young (pretty harsh stuff for a Disney pic). Colonial-era crones bowled over by the modern world. The modern world poorly equipped to deal with 17th Century mystic evil. Kids in the path of a catacysm in the making and their elders oblivious to the danger. Talking black cats. Corpses rising from the grave. Rules the villains are bound by, known to the heroes…but skirted around because the villains are as wily as they are wicked. And the always-popular ‘so much more!’.

“In arming yourselves to battle witches, you need a few things. Tuna. Starkist, not that generic crap. In oil, not water. Plus, cat toys. Lots of cat toys, slathered in catnip.”

After moving to Salem, Mass. from his former and much trendier home in California, teenager Max Dennison (Omri Katz, fresh from his stint as kid hero against the macabre in the great TV show ‘Eerie, Indiana’) explores on Halloween an Historical Society preserved house mentioned prevalently in Salem spook lore. With his sister Dani (Thora Birch) and their new friend, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), Max hears the tale of child murder and witchcraft centering on the old house. Dismissing the legend of the evil trio known as The Sanderson Sisters and their necromantic ways, Max accidentally flooses the unholy siblings (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy) on the modern world. With the help of Binx, a magical cat, the kids must prevent the Sandersons from recovering their book of spells and weaving a dark enchantment that will cause a severe drop in the underage population of Salem while granting the witches immortality. Witches have been depicted in so many different ways on the silver screen that there’s no laundry list of weaknesses or powers attributable to them as a strata of the supernatural. This film sets up rules nicely, both for these specific witches and for the requirements they must fulfill to attain eternal life. It’s a nice, Halloween-centric update to many tales in traditional folklore.

“We cannot step upon hallowed ground, ’tis true. But we needn’t ‘step’ anywhere, when we have broom!”

Max makes a good ‘Jack’, the human boy confronted by black-souled, magical beings bent on badism and armed only with his hubris and wits. Like many Jacks before, Max feels the weight of the responsibility for creating the situation, and an equal weight to fix things…just like the Jack who planted beans and then had to make sure the giant whose home he breached didn’t return the favor with a rampage all over the mortal countryside. And when the Salem adults are made aware of the threat of the Sandersons by a panicked Max, Bette Midler as elder sister Winifred Sanderson dispels their concerns with a spell-in-a-song, ‘I Put a Spell on You’. You feel the frustration of the young heroes all the while your toes tap, and you wonder just how much evil could be perpetrated without resistance, so long as it comes wrapped into a mesmerizing tune. One Ewwwww Moment of note: To whomever told Gary and Penny Marshall that, as they were older folks at the time, it was OK for them to play husband and wife handing out Halloween candy and hosting the Sandersons unawares? BAD CALL. Gary & Penny, being brother and sister in real life, distract me from what otherwise would have been a very funny scene every time I watch this. Just saying. Overlooking that one stumble, this movie has delighted in an All Hallow’s way every generation that has watched it since. So much so, it seems destined to evolve from Cult Favorite to Classic Halloween Fare.

The scariest part of this film!
                                              The scariest part of this film!

So that’s it. Roll the credits, sweep up the popcorn, Fantastik the soda spills and do NOT put that in your mouth ’cause you don’t know where it’s been! In future editions of Monkey Bread and Popcorn, I’ll be looking at some of the vintage male role models for kids who had no real male role models, plus some of those rare TV show moments that make you smack your head and realize, ‘This is A Moment.’ Good or sometimes even bad, these are the few-and-far between things you watch television for.

Again, please feel free to share entries on your own list of Annually Watched Halloween films. And thanks for letting me blather on about some that enchant me.  Above all…have a safe and spooky Halloween.

A Very Special MB&P: The Extended Cut Holiday Edition!

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It’s the right time for a Holiday Edition of Monkey Bread & Popcorn! No, not the ‘Happy Holidays!’ kind of Holiday Edition. A ‘Merry Halloween!’ sort. From more innocent and less socially testy times, before certain adjectives were paired with specific celebrations inflexibly. When children dressed up in costume for a night of revels that usually amounted to a slight amount of mischief and an industrial sized amount of candy begged from neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and people you had no idea who they were. Those folks usually had only one thing in common, and that was the enjoyment of watching kids have fun going door-to-door trick-or-treating. In that way and in that era, Halloween really was merry. bloghalloweenmerry

So let us first dismiss the 21st Century baggage that seems to bog down anything that is done for pure and innocent fun, and in being just that, cheeses people off no end. And gives them an excuse to sniff haughtily at a juvenile observation they have outgrown, become disproving of, or have decided to prevent anyone else from partaking in.

Pagan! It’s a pagan festival! Originally, true enough. Centuries ago. I have yet to see anyone celebrating a modern Samhain with giant wicker men filled with living creatures and burned to ensure a good harvest next year. Or pentagrams and black wax candles. Besides, before you go casting pagan rune stones, check some of the lingering trappings and traditions of Christmas and Easter. You might want to cut those out of your celebratory list too, based on how they started out in years long past and places perhaps oceans away. Personally, the best Halloween costume contest prize I ever won was at a Southern Baptist Sunday School Party, but that’s just me. And if you are one of those folks who have cut out any and all possibly pagan-based observances, I congratulate you for your strict principles. But you might wanna find the Exit sign now, ’cause this blog’s not for you. BLOGBYEWITCH

It’s childish and juvenile. Given, because as Halloween is now celebrated, it’s for kids. And for those of us who still have child-like hearts, not childish ones. God bless us, every one. In the words of Steven Pressfield, “A child has no trouble believing the unbelievable, nor does the genius or the madman. It’s only you and I, with our big brains and our tiny hearts, who doubt, and overthink, and hesitate.” So if you are a sophisticate far evolved from the wee one that I bet shivered at campfire spook stories and raided the Ben Cooper costumes every October, please use the Exit that the Principled Worthies just took. ‘Cause this blog’s not for you, either. blogboobye

“I’m a parent concerned about the impact of such a questionable festival on my children’s ability to tell right from wrong and reality from fantasy.” You are to be commended for truly parenting, and that is rare today. And if you decided that reading ‘Harry Potter’ books held the same danger for your kids and forbade them becoming Hogwarted, again, you made the call (hopefully only after you had read a Harry Potter book yourself and not based on what anyone else said) and are acting in the best interest of your individual child or children. I speak from real world experience; I have seen real horror, and I have met monsters in human form over the past three decades. This ain’t that. All I ask is that you please equally respect others who are doing their best to raise quality individuals and human beings, and who don’t believe Halloween or Harry to be harmful to their charges, rather than try to ban such things for everyone. You are most welcome to stay and read on, and then decide if you want to share the blog with the kiddos. But it may or may not be your cuppa. Fair warning.blogbyesnape

Everyone gone who’s going? Wait…there’s always a straggler. Close up on the way out, willya, buddy? Merci. Now, then, submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this post, ‘Revenge of the Return of the Repeated Halloween Films’.

You know the kind. It’s getting to be that All Hallows Eve time of year and you’re channel surfing and BOOM! There it is. That flick that tickled you or made you a little creeped out when you saw it the first time. Or scared the living crap outta you as a kid. Now it’s part of a Fall Fest lineup of movies on Disney Family, TCM, TMC or Chiller. And even though it’s three-quarters of the way in, you watch it. Again. Because you know you’ve seen it at least 27 times. Then you check listings to see when it’ll be repeated so you can watch it uninterrupted for the 28th time. Just because…it makes you feel the fun and the ‘boo!’ of Halloween. And heaven help you if you happen to be pushing the cart past the $5 movie bin at Mart-Mart and spot a 25th Anniversary DVD of the film! ‘Cause that puppy’s coming home with you, even if you have to body check that septuagenarian reading the back cover. She’s had 70+ years to snag a copy, this one -will- be yours! Just so your spouse can then notice, over the next week, how many times you’re watching the thing and finally exhale the terse battle cry of someone missing their first-run series episode: “AGAIN???!!??”

“NO! I will watch static before we sit through ‘Ed Wood’ again, Daddy!”

Let’s face it, my macabre friends. It seems we’ve been shorted on our Halloween enjoyment if we don’t carve out time (possibly while carving out jack-o-lanterns) to watch these special and bewitching films before or on October 31st every year. Some come and go, not meant to add to the celluloid shrine of our Samhain fun. But those that remain latch onto us like an Aliens face-hugger and never let go. Maybe it’s one that we saw as kids, and had to sleep with the lights on for a week while our parents growled, “Never again! No more horror movies!” Maybe it’s one that our own children found enchanting, scary, or both and that we enjoyed by sharing in their experience. Maybe it’s one that ages well with deft, suspense-building tension and an unforgettable score that puts it at the pinnacle of creepy coolness. Maybe it’s a Pumpkin Spice stew of several of these films all cauldron-bubbling together.

So I’m going to show you mine, and here’s hoping you’ll take a moment to show us yours in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for a new scary film to like and others here are as well. I will also do my best not to give away surprises or too many plot points, in case there are entries here you have not yet seen.

  1. The Night Stalker, 1972. ABC TV movie with Darren McGavin as investigative reporter Carl Kolchak covering a series of murders on his Las Vegas beat wherein the young women have a severe case of anemia; they have each been almost totally drained of blood. Rumpled hero Noir with a jaundiced reporter instead of a world-weary gumshoe, an old school newshound who starts off theorizing that perhaps the killer is a psycho who fancies himself a vampire, and who slowly comes to believe the culprit just may actually be one of the walking dead. Kolchak is a favorite childhood hero of mine because…he was so flawed. Not brave, not strong, not dangerous. Middle-aged and in a profession that he loves but which has never loved him back.
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    “Dear Miss Emily, I have a friend who keeps running into monsters, no matter what assignment—I mean, everywhere he goes. What can he do? Signed, Uptight”

    The seedy realism of the neon-and-broken-dreams Vegas setting pervades the film and precludes any possible supernatural forces at work. Which makes the slowly building dread of the inhuman threat that much more effective. Dan Curtis, a fella who knew a thing or two about gothic monsters from being the creative force behind ‘Dark Shadows’ showed he also knew how to take horror elements from their usual time and place, confronted by an unconventional ‘hero’, and make it all work like a well-sanguinated scream machine. Watching this movie always leads to watching its sequel, ‘The Night Strangler’. And then the entire too-short run of ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ TV series episodes. McGavin, a veteran of stage and screen with tons of work to his credit, is mostly remembered as The Old Man in ‘A Christmas Story’. But Kolchak worked mostly because of McGavin’s understanding of that nosey, persistent, funny, resourceful and intelligent character who realizes he’s in way, way over his head, but continues on in pursuit of the truth. His work as Kolchak in this film, the sequel and the TV series is his crowning achievement at making a living, breathing character who endures. There’s a reason Chris Carter attributed Kolchak and McGavin as his inspiration for ‘The X-Files’. blogthe-night-stalker-confrontation

  2. Creepshow, 1982, directed by George A. Romero and featuring a cast of Everybody. I was born after the Great Comic Book Scare of 1954, wherein a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was spoon-fed a bunch of psychobabble assuring them that comic books were the common denominator by which little Timmy became, violent, anti-social, sociopathic, homicidal, felonious and probably gay. And wherein, rather than make comic books of certain content Adults Only and others for all readers, the Senators applied pressure and made the comic book folks swear to police and censor the content of all their publications by forcing the artists and writers adhere to The Comics Code Authority, thus kneecapping a new American art form into G-rated pap for decades. One of the casualties of this was the grisly horror comics line ‘E.C. Comics’. They more or less closed up shop and became ‘Mad Magazine’. It would be kind of like the government deciding, based on the flawed and questionable findings of one researcher, that science fiction and fantasy were generally bad for TV viewers and their collective grip on reality, and then axing ‘The Twilight Zone’ halfway through the first season. I needn’t have felt left out of the spine-chilling, over the top horror stories E.C. was infamous for, because Romero and Company loved those comics as kids and poured all that love like gallons of Karo syrup blood into ‘Creepshow’. It’s an anthology film (you’ll see I’m a sucker for anthology films) with five separate stories connected by a wraparound piece to hold them all together. Kind of like a horror comic with five terror tales, and the narrating ghoul as the common denominator.
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    “OK, OK…I won’t do the ‘Don’t call me Shirley’ line any more!!!”

    And what stories they are. ‘Father’s Day’ and a vengeful celebration request from beyond the grave; ‘The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill’ brought on by an unexpected form of outer space invasion; ‘Something To Tide You Over’ which explores beachfront property as the setting for marital revenge; ‘The Crate’ found in the dusty bowels of a university and becoming the worst possible sort of jack-in-the-box; and ‘They’re Creeping Up On You’, the kind of tale that gives you nightmares walking on six legs. With stars like Leslie Nielsen showing what a great villain he could play when he wasn’t doing a ‘Police Squad!’ film, Stephen King in his first screen role, E.G. Marshall as a twisted, reclusive billionaire, and Hal Holbrook & Adrienne Barbeau as a meek college professor and his shrew of a wife, the film has some acting chops. And a great sense of horror. That’s my term when the funny and horrific are twined together into a black comedy/horror masterpiece. It’s one of the hardest balancing acts in filmmaking, and several horror comedies are on my list.

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3. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948. Warned ya. Not only a horror-comedy, but possibly the best one ever made. Why best? Abbott & Costello near the top of their game with terrific lines and a great sense of comedic timing. And the classic Universal monsters, played with one exception by the iconic stars who made them great. Bela Lugosi is Dracula in only the second time he ever played the character on the big screen, Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot AKA The Wolfman, and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster, a role he played in several films after Boris Karloff retired from the part. The equal division of labor by director Charles Barton is a large part of the film’s success; he lets the monsters play their parts straight with only one small exception (The Monster cringes, startled, when he gets a look at Lou Costello’s character of Wilbur and Dracula tells him not to be afraid, Wilbur won’t hurt him.) and lets the boys be funny.

“I wasn’t -really- a’scared of you, Lou.” “Good, ’cause I wouldn’t want to have Sam the Bartender too shaken to pour!”

The story centers on Dracula and the Monster getting to American shores with the inadvertent help of a house of horrors museum owner who buys the count’s coffin and the alleged ‘monster’ as exhibits. Larry Talbot pursues them from England, having an inkling of Dracula’s plan to use the monster to establish a power base with fresh blood in a new locale. Bud & Lou are baggage handlers tasked with delivering the exhibits and they get swept up into the pursuit with a mixture of scary and hilarious results. Chaney always stated that this movie ruined the Universal monster genre by making them look silly, but I think time has proved him wrong. Many kids had their first exposure to Abbott and Costello and all those Universal monsters with this film, and most I know went on to seek out more of both…the comedy team’s two decades of film work and the original movies of the Universal horror collection. And most became fans of each.

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This…this is what happens when you don’t knock before entering a room!

4. Nightbreed, 1990. For many, Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser’ is the go-to for annual All Hallow’s viewing. While I like and respect that worthy film, I’ve seen it maybe twice. Barker’s writing and directing on ‘Nightbreed’, however, has earned it a place here. Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is haunted by terrifying nightmares of a city called Midian. A city populated only by twisted and terrifying monsters. He goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg), for help and the good doctor determines that Boone is subconsciously the serial killer who has been plaguing their fair city. Decker gives him fair warning: Turn himself into the authorities, or Decker will. Instead, Boone flees in search of Midian and finds what may have once been a rural, incorporated area but which now is mostly a few shacks and a very large graveyard. He also runs into a couple of people who do, indeed, turn out to be monsters living in the catacombs under the cemetery. With other monsters. A whole lot of them. Then the authorities show up, led by Decker, and they kill Boone dead with lots and lots of bullets. The End. Welllllll, not -quite-. What follows is an exploration of the nature of myth, legend, superstition, the supernatural, tolerance, intolerance and whether supernatural creatures or human beings are really the worst ‘monsters’. Barker’s dialogue for the characters carries an eloquence matched in very few horror films. Like this: “To be able to fly? To be smoke? Or a wolf? To know the night and live in it forever. That’s not so bad. You call us monsters. But when you dream, you dream off flying and changing, and living without death. You envy us, and what you envy…” “We destroy.” And as Dr. Decker, Cronenberg, usually a film director and not an actor, gains status as a major Screen Villain. Visually, the film veers deftly between Mundania, horrifying creatures and settings, and unexpected (if alien) beauty. Financially and critically a failure at the time of its release, this horror fantasy has endured to become a cult classic. Check it out and see if the Tribes of the Moon do not, indeed, embrace you. blogNightbreed%201_zpsbmaobhbq5. Cabin in the Woods, 2012. Five young college students visit a remote cabin in a lush rural setting for a weekend getaway, all set for a little swimming, a little drinking, a little pot-smoking, and a little sex. But then Bad Things begin to transpire leading the troop of youths to fight for their lives! And no, it is not a Dark & Stormy Night when all this takes place…but the lead-in does sound like a horror movie cliché, dunnit? How. Many. Times. Have we seen this plot, this mad-slasher or evil stalker kind of horror flick??? Based on the jacket blurb of the DVD I would never have given it a second glance, let alone set aside time to watch it. BUT…it’s directed by Drew Goddard and produced by Joss Whedon of ‘Buffy the Vampire’ TV series fame. And written by both.

“Hey, Scoob, like, check out this cabin! No ghosts, werewolves or mermen here!”

Would Whedon waste time on a retreaded remake of a worn out horror film trope? No!!! Well, not unless he could take the whole thing from that overworked situational start and turn it on its ear. Which is exactly what this movie does. The kernel of the plot developed while Whedon and Goddard were working on ‘Buffy’ and they initially thought it would make a good episode. They eventually realized it was too big for that, and instead they squirreled the story away until they could make it into a movie. If you have an affinity for ‘Buffy’, you should like the tone and execution of the story a lot. If you think nothing in what seems like a mad slasher flick can surprise you, you’ll be proven wrong. ‘Cabin’ simply examines a few interesting ‘what ifs’, and then runs with them screaming into the night. What if, in all those campfire tales of Haddonfield, IL and Camp Crystal Lake, there’s a reason the heroes and defenders always seem, y’know…similar? The Jock(s). The Naughty Girl(s). The Good Girl. The Stoner. The Nerd. What if, indeed, the nubile young ladies and studly young men in this tale are not in the woods alone, but are being stalked…just not in the way they think and not by who or what they can imagine? Like stories in the Buffyverse, this one has some clever insights and a good deal of humor to go along with the horror. And blood. Oh, that’s -not- one of the traditional slasher film departures here. Lots and lots and lots of blood. Also some nice nods to other proven horror genre films.

“Gimme…back…my…gum…”

End of Part One, cue outro music and flash the ‘To Be Continued’ card onscreen. Hmmm? Oh, how many films will we be looking at in total? Good question. Dunno. My Go-To Halloween list has grown quite a bit over the years, one perk to being long in the tooth and gray in the hair. It’s really, really hard to get a viewing of all of them each Halloween season, so I start around July these days. OK, that’s not true. More like late June. But I promise, we’ll only peek at the very best here. See you next Wednesday. (No, not really…jeez, John Landis, people!) Until next time, have fun putting the ‘Wee!’ in Halloween.

‘Luke Cage, Hero for Hire’: The 1974 Film That Shoulda Been

After the success of their first Daredevil season, Netflix is continuing with their four-part plan to bring live-action treatment to some of the more street-level heroes of Marvel Comics. First came DD, next Jessica Jones, a powered PI. Fourth will be Iron Fist. And third…Luke Cage in 2016. And the teasers look good as far as providing a screen treatment for the Luke Cage (AKA Power Man) character in the modern Marvel universe. Mike Colter is set to play Cage, with Rosario Dawson as friend and possible love interest Claire Temple.

Sweet Christmas, Mike looks perfect for the part!
Sweet Christmas, Mike looks perfect for the part!

But Luke Cage has been around since 1972, and he did not start out as he is today. I know because I was there. I had ‘Luke Cage, Hero for Hire’ #1. And I read it. A lot.

With the gift of hindsight, I now consider it to be on equal origin footing with ‘Amazing Fantasy’ #15 ten years prior. That contained the premiere tale of a spider-bitten teen named Peter Parker. Oh, it’s not worth as much as Spider-Man’s first appearance in the collector’s market, but ‘Hero for Hire’ #1 presented an African American superhero character with a story that attempted a degree of reality above most comic books. It was the first mainstream comic to featureLukeCage_Hero_for_Hire_Vol_1_1 a black superhero headlining in his own magazine. And all this was, in part, because of the blaxploitation cinema of the early 1970’s.

But Cage was not Marvel’s first black hero. Both Marvel and DC had been working to establish one…or, at least, Marvel had and DC felt they should try and compete. Marvel introduced the Black Panther in 1966, but he was an African prince, T’Challa, not African American. That ‘first’ went to The Falcon in 1969, when Sam Wilson was introduced and quickly became the partner of Captain America. But both were offshoots of established comics (Fantastic Four and Captain America, respectively). They are excellent, solid characters, each either adapted into or being adapted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But they aren’t Cage.

Oh. Speaking of, meanwhile over in the DC camp…the Teen Titans admitted a young black hero named Mal Duncan in 1970. But he certainly seemed like an afterthought attempt to be relevant. ‘Robin! Kid Flash! Aqualad! Speedy! Wonder Girl! And Mal!’ Meh. Green Lantern John Stewart was introduced in late 1971/early 1972. He was selected by the Guardians of the Universe as a backup GL for Earth’s Hal Jordan. Again, a decent character but beneath the shadow of an established, white hero. In my opinion, an equivalent, independent black superhero in his own title did not grace the pages of DC until Black Lightning arrived in 1977. Even then it was only after writer Tony Isabella convinced the DC Powers that their plans prior to letting him create BL would not work. In fact, that those plans would be in just plain bad taste. Worst taste. They wanted to do a ‘Captain Marvel/Shazam’ kind of character who was a racist Caucasian war vet turned into a metahuman thanks to exposure to chemicals during the Vietnam conflict. The white former soldier found that, in times of stress, he could transform into a super-powered being who was black. And his heroic form would be called the Black Bomber. (No, I am not making this up. Google away, I’ll wait…seeeee???) They planned to have girlfriends of corresponding races for Black Bomber’s white secret identity and for his black heroic identity. And, apparently for the Powers, none of this came off as a racist, embarrassing, possibly polygamist choice for DC’s first African American hero in his own title.

No 'Black Bomber' issues, thank heaven!
No ‘Black Bomber’ issues, thank heaven!

But in 1972, Luke Cage made the scene at Marvel, his own man in his own book. And he wasn’t called ‘Black Hercules’, ‘Black Racer’, ‘Black Goliath’ or any of the seemingly endless characters exhibiting names wherein the publisher felt they should indicate his or her race in the heroic moniker. And for the record, Luke Cage would have punched the Black Bomber in the mush before he knew he was under duress and needed to change form. That’s just how he rolled.

Cage stood alone, his only degree issued by the School of Hard Knocks, and with a major in Street Smarts. He was also funny, no small task for someone who had been dealt the hand he was forced to play before gaining his powers. And while even brainy Peter Parker never could quite make his Spider-Man powers or career support him financially (except for selling photos of Spider-Man by having to work for World Class Asshat J. Jonah Jameson, so I don’t count that), Luke Cage charged a fee for his services and parlayed super powers into a living. He wasn’t just a powered mercenary, either. Luke Cage wasn’t out to get rich, only to get by. He charged according to the case and what clients could afford, and he connected with hurting people who never came closer to a traditional superhero than seeing Thor soar overhead or Iron Man blast off from a rooftop. Luke Cage was, at heart, a good man…a good man who had traveled a hard road and had the scars to prove it. A knight errant with very tarnished armor. He may have been black, but he was also Noir in this sense. Which brings us right back to his birthright.

lukecageSuperFly

Shaft. Super Fly. Blacula. Exploitation films of African American culture, but also a gauntlet thrown down cinematically of black heroes or anti-heroes charting their own courses and not battling for The Man. Usually, in fact, battling against The Man and The System. Films that made profits and were successful, even if they were modestly budgeted and part of a blaxploitation craze. They made it possible for Marvel to consider doing the same sort of thing for an all-new black comic book hero. And then, Marvel had the intestinal fortitude to actually do it.

The origin of Luke Cage reads like a worthy script for just such a film of that era. It has action, romance, crime, a corrupt and cruel System trying to keep the protagonist under its heel, and tarnished heroes who had been through hell…now working for themselves and guided by their own codes, their own takes on right, wrong, and the meaning of justice. Here’s the plot from issue #1, see if it doesn’t fire on all cinematic cylinders:lukecage-hero-for-hire-1-3

The story begins in Seagate Prison, where Lucas is an inmate considered incorrigible by interim Acting Warden Billy Bob Rackham and his right-hand guard Quirt, and thus subjected to abuse by both in an effort to break him. Which leads to regular sessions between Lucas and prison physician Dr. Noah Burstein. Lucas confides to the doctor that, while he has grown up on the streets and committed crimes as a young member of the Rivals street gang, his prison stretch was the result of being framed for drug possession by his friend and former criminal partner Willis Stryker. With Lucas out of the way, Stryker not only rose to running the local rackets, he also laid claim to Lucas’s girl, Reva. When criminal rivals made a hit on Stryker, they missed their intended target, mainly because the lethal hail of bullets struck Reva instead. Clearly, Lucas has revenge issues. And real motivation to get his prison term shortened. Since Lucas is also a very good physical specimen, Burstein offers him a chance at early parole. Burstein has been working on cell regeneration to help in the fight against cancer and other debilitating diseases, and basing his work on a variant of the Super-Soldier process that created Captain America during WWII. If Lucas will volunteer to be the first human test subject of Burstein’s experimental treatment, he can earn an early parole.

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In the meantime, new Warden Tyler Stuart arrives unannounced and gets a first-hand glimpse of the abusive nature of Rackham’s regime. Being a decent and professional Corrections administrator, Stuart tosses Rackham out of his office, and gives him a week to prove he can handle regular guard duties or be fired. He also discusses Lucas’s case with Dr. Burstein and approves the parole deal.

During the procedure, Dr. Burstein leaves to take readings in another part of the lab. Seeing a chance to torment Lucas one last time, Rackham slips in and tampers with the controls. The chemical hot tub Lucas is submerged in goes critical, causing a very unexpected metamorphosis. Lucas gains increased tissue and bone density, increased mass, enhanced strength and bullet-proof/blade-proof skin. After Lucas escapes the hellish confines of his solid steel bathysphere by punching his way out, Rackham concludes he’s trying to escape the deathtrap, and decides to shoot him. Y’know, so he won’t escape all together. lukecage-origin3 Or tattle on the guard’s attempt to chemically immolate him. Either way, shooting a man who just punched through a solid steel enclosure with his bare fists proves futile and gets Rackham slapped by Lucas for his trouble. Burstein returns, and on checking the fallen Rackham, tells Lucas that his slap has nearly killed the guard (Man, getting used to sudden superhuman strength is tough!). In fact, Rackham may yet die from the injuries. Knowing that even the accidental killing of a sadistic guard will not play well at a parole hearing, Lucas punches through the exterior prison wall and makes a run for it. Increased speed is not one of his new powers, though, and the guards are quickly in pursuit. When Lucas is cornered on a seaside cliff, he grabs a rock and turns on his pursuers. Someone in the posse mistakes the rock for a gun, and …wait for it… Lucas is cut down in a Hollywood-worthy hail of bullets! (Lots of hot lead storms in this story.) And then falls from dizzying heights onto the jagged rocks below, before being swept out to sea. The staff at Seagate Prison assumes Lucas drowned attempting to escape (after first being cut down by the guards and their 21 machine gun salute, then falling 500 feet onto breakers), and he gets issued a death certificate in place of the early parole.lukecage-origin4

Except that Lucas, thanks to his now nigh-invulnerable skin and physique, survives the gunfire and plummet with only bruises. He doffs the prison garb and eventually works his way to New York City, where he happens upon a diner robbery. When he stops the fleeing robber, the owner of the business shows his appreciation with a monetary reward.  Lucas comes up with a plan to put his powers and his clean slate to use for a legitimate livelihood. Buying a costume and taking on the new identity of ‘Luke Cage’, Lucas begins his career as a Hero for Hire, complete with printed business cards. Got a criminal problem in Harlem too beneath the notice of Spider-Man, or the Avengers, or the local cops? Luke Cage is your man, and for a nominal fee! Think Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but with metahuman abilities. Not as altruistic as most ‘superheroes’, but this is 1970’s Harlem, baby! Luke’s activities make him popular among the people of the neighborhood, but also bring him to the attention of the local syndicate leader: Diamondback, a costumed criminal with trick switchblades. Diamondback, a ruthless crime lord who, as it turns out, is Luke’s old partner-in-felony…Willis Stryker. Oh, yeah. This &%$t’s about to get serious. To quote Luke as he checks out his new threads, “Yeah! Outfit’s kinda hokey… but so what? All part of the super-hero scene. An’ this way when I use my powers, it’s gonna seem natural. A little promotion work an’ I’m in business!”

In the next issue, Luke get an office above an old cinema and begins to expand his cast of supporting characters. Cage and Stryker also have it out, and all that would make a great last third & climax to the film. Kudos to the writer of the original comic, the late Archie Goodwin, for retaining the elements that fit into the Marvel Universe while still staying as true as possible to the mean street background of the characters. Origins are a tricky thing, and often they are set into place quickly…almost apologetically, to get on with the super-powered action. Not here. As a young reader, I devoured this story, empathized with the character, cheered when he prevailed and felt his anger when he didn’t. George Tuska art and beautiful, loving Billy Graham inks made the panels of the book pop, and that was another reason I read this comic dozens of times. Even as a child, I could relate to the gritty street backgrounds and the lower class surroundings of the book. I didn’t live in a major city, but my hometown streets and fellow citizens looked a lot more like the elements portrayed in this comic than the ones in Metropolis or Gotham City (not yet the playground of Tim Burton). And if the setting and people were rendered realistically, and if the story seemed set in the really real world, then to my 9 year old imagination, that made it feasible that a superhero like Luke Cage could truly exist as well. Above all else, there was a definite film vibe to the issue. It was almost 3-D and cinematic in its storytelling approach. Even today, this first version of the character is fondly recalled and discovered by new readers.

Modern cosplayer looking good as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.
Modern cosplayer looking good as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.

But it still took 44 years for Luke Cage to get a live-action film treatment. The whys are understandable. It literally took that long to enter this Marvel Age of Movies, with the foundation firmly based on major heroes, before less-major characters like Ant Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy and, yes, Luke Cage, could become promising enough profit-making properties to greenlight a film or series. I get it. But I don’t have to like it.

In fact, what I can do and what I have done is ‘What If’ it instead. What if, around 1973, someone with connections to the blaxploitation arm of the film industry had picked up a Luke Cage comic book and brought it to the attention of his or her bosses. And producers. Who then contacted Stan Lee at Marvel and set up a meeting. And what if Marvel, who at the time was keen to explore all sorts of avenues to lift their characters above and beyond the comic book pages (Spider-Man was live on the ‘Electric Company’, making wonky sounding word balloons appear overhead! Check out the ‘Spider-Man’s Dilema: A Rockomic’ LP or 8-track if you doubt me!), discovered that the price tag for such a film was within reason for a decent profit as their part of the pie? It helps that Luke Cage is so grounded in the everyday that regular, established and low-cost effects/stunts would have sufficed. This wasn’t star-spanning Fantastic Four or web-spinning Spider-Man acrobatics we’re talking about here. CGI would be needed to pull some of those off believably, and it was a lotta years away.

WHAT IF…there -had- been a 1974 theatrical release, in conjunction with Marvel Comics, of the film, ‘Luke Cage: Hero for Hire’?

'Written by Stan Lee'? Well, he edited the Archie Goodwin comic script. Could Stan have resisted having his name on the poster? Or doing the shooting script? Maybe Goodwin would have shared the credit.
‘Written by Stan Lee’? Well, he edited the Archie Goodwin comic script. Could Stan have resisted having his name on the poster? Or doing the shooting script? Maybe Goodwin would have shared the credit.

Why, then, it would have had to be cast, is what! And that was the hardest part of this labor of love for me. Who was working at that time and available for the limited budget? I also set it as a goal not to utilize someone already proven and established by a previous iconic role. Richard Roundtree was Shaft, on the big screen and then on TV. William Marshall was Blacula and tied up with the sequel to the first film. Who was out there, young and hungry and ready to work, with some screen creds but not -too-many? With acting chops, but also physically right for the roles? You may disagree with my choices, and you may be able to cite better candidates for all the parts. If so, please..share them! That’s the fun part of the ‘What If’ exercise! But here’s my selected cast alongside their comic book character counterparts:

lukecagecastingFredWilliamsonasLucasLukeCage2

Fred Williamson as Lucas/Luke Cage – A former Oakland Raiders/Kansas City Chiefs football star, Williamson rose to prominence as one of the first African-American male action stars of the “blaxploitation” genre of the early 1970s, who has since gone on to a long and illustrious career as an actor, director, writer, and producer. Yet, that one prominent, iconic role remained ever outside his grasp. Most modern audiences know him as Frost in Robert Rodriguez’s ‘From Dusk to Dawn’, and little else. As a black belt in at least three different styles of martial arts, Williamson had the bearing, the physique, and the acting foundation to be a dynamite Luke Cage.

lukecagecastingJimBrownasWillisStryker

Jim Brown as Willis Stryker/Diamondback – A co-star with Fred Williamson in several film and TV projects, Brown also began with an illustrious football career. He is best known for his exceptional nine years as a fullback for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965. But during his last years as a professional athlete, he had also started to think of acting as a possible career beyond sports. He was filming his second movie, ‘The Dirty Dozen’ when production delays due to bad weather meant he would miss at least the first part of training camp. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell threatened to fine Brown $1,500 for every week of camp he missed, so Brown announced his retirement from football and focused on acting. He managed higher profile film projects and with bigger co-stars than Williamson overall, but again that elusive signature role eluded him. At this point, let me say that Brown could have played either Cage or Stryker, and that Williamson could also have handled either role based on looks, stature and athleticism. But Brown seemed more adept at playing hero, anti-hero or villain, and he could adopt a harder edge to his expressions. Based on the films I have seen both men in, they would be totally believable as boyhood friends and fellow street gang members who grew up fast in Harlem. Brown I can more easily believe would emerge from the experience scarred by it, hardened to a greater and more ruthless degree.

lukecagecasting1974VonettaMcGeeasRevaConnors

Vonetta McGee as Reva Connors – Beautiful American actress best known for her roles during the 1970s, which included several prominent blaxploitation film roles in ‘Hammer’, ‘Blacula’ and ‘Shaft in Africa’, McGee had ample experience to play the tragic, doomed girlfriend Reva. She also seemed able to adopt a different look for each of the films she did, and at least one of them, shown here, is nearly a ringer for Reva as drawn by George Tuska.

lukecagecasting1974LoganRamseyasBillyBobRackham

Logan Ramsey as Acting Warden Billy Bob Rackham – Ramsey was a consummate character actor and husband of character actress Anne Ramsey (Mama, in ‘Throw Mama from the Train’ and ‘The Goonies’). Logan Ramsey was one of those nameless, hard-working actors whose face you knew from countless TV and film roles, like the brutal Claudius in the ‘Star Trek’ episode “Bread and Circuses”. Most of those roles had a nastiness about them, a slimy, corrupt element that Ramsey was perfect in playing. Not only would he have been ideal as the sadistic, racist Acting Warden, but he also looked very much like Rackham as drawn by Tuska. When I saw Ramsey in 1977’s ‘Final Chapter: Walking Tall’ as a boozy, bitter former Dixie Mafia boss with his power base crumbling, I blinked and said, ‘Rackham!’.

lukecagecasting1974LorneGreeneasWardenTylerStuart

Lorne Greene as Warden Tyler Stuart – The perfect foil for the beady-eyed, odious Rackham as played by Ramsey would be his opposite number: Warden Tyler Stuart as played by Lorne Greene, patriarch Ben Cartwright from ‘Bonanza’ and patriarch ‘Commander Adama’ from the original ‘Battlestar Galactica’. With his deep, authoritative and yet compassionate voice, he could have done ample justice as the new warden who runs Seagate Prison firmly, but fairly. The role could have been over-the-top had it gone to someone set on playing it as a hip, liberal reformer and that would have clashed with the harsher, noir elements of the story. But in Greene there would have been that equal measure of a warden not afraid to exercise his power, while making certain that force is tempered with compassion when deserved. I can almost hear him growling at Rackham to get out, get in uniform and cut it as a guard or be fired. But I can also hear him checking on Lucas after an undeserved guard beatdown and asking, “How bad is it, son?”.

lukecagecasting1974DavidWayneasDrNoahBurstein

David Wayne as Dr. Noah Burstein – Another veteran actor of stage and screen, Wayne is best remembered as The Mad Hatter on the 1960’s TV version of ‘Batman’ and as Dr. Charles Dutton in the movie ‘The Andromeda Strain’. Good guy or bad, Wayne’s characters often had an edge and a vulnerability coexisting in them. And also a wry sense of humor. Dr. Burstein’s part in a Luke Cage film might have been one of the hardest to play, and Wayne would have been up for that challenge. A brilliant researcher who, somehow, ends up working in the Georgia penal system. Smacks of some bad career choices or stubborness regarding colleague opinions about the validity of his findings, doesn’t it? Yet, research which could save countless lives and be a significant breakthrough for modern medicine, and if validated with human testing, provide the chance to show all those who scoffed at him how wrong they were. But he needs volunteers. Is it chance that he befriends Lucas, an outstanding physical specimen for his research, and learns of his motivations for early release? Or is it an intentional manipulation and exploitation? Is he just one more member of the white establishment using Lucas for his own ends, or is he genuinely combining his research needs with the chance to help a deserving man regain his freedom? Wayne could have balanced on that tightrope of character definition well, and, in the end, still left us wondering about Dr. Burstein’s true motivations.

lukecagecasting1974LarryHagmanasQuirt

Larry Hagman as Quirt – Anyone thinking that the main toady guard of Acting Warden Rackham would be a role out of Hagman’s range as good guy (Tony Nelson on ‘I Dream of Jeannie’) or soap villain (J.R. Ewing in ‘Dallas’) needs to check out his performance as ambulance driver Murdoch in 1976’s ‘Mother, Jugs & Speed’. Murdoch is a sexist, pathetic loser not above copping a feel from an unconscious female patient in transport, and Hagman played it well enough that you actually pitied the character at times. 1974 would have been that lean period between ‘Jeannie’ and ‘Dallas’ for Hagman, so he might well have opted to make a quick buck for a small supporting role like Quirt. Based mainly on his deft handling of Murdoch, I can visualize Hagman being surly enough to beat a targeted prisoner to within an inch of his life at his boss’s direction, and equally simpering when Lucas manages to get some payback of his own.

lukecagecastingJimKellyasCommancheandCleavonLittleasShadesBadGuys

Jim Kelly as Comanche and Cleavon Little as Shades – Two of his fellow convicts make life interesting for Lucas at Seagate, and not in a bad way, just a character-defining one. Lucas’s putdowns when Shades talks about instigating disharmony among the prison gang population, especially since he seems fine with starting violence that someone other than himself can carry out, are funny. They also show that Lucas is not someone willing to hop on just any fool’s bandwagon to curry favor or be a ‘brother’. Little, great as Sheriff Bart in ‘Blazing Saddles’, could have handled that streetwise but humorously verbose part nicely. His tougher but less brainy companion, Comanche, would have been a natural fit for Jim Kelly, a young actor and martial artist with a lot of physical prowess (he played Williams in ‘Enter the Dragon’) but not as much acting polish as most of the others in my cast. Some say he would have been the perfect Luke Cage, and I respect that opinion. But for my money, he would have been a little bit too inexperienced to make the pathos work as well as Williamson. Comanche and Shades both resurface later on the outside, rejoining the criminal life as would-be costumed villains. So sequel possibilities for both these characters would be high.

Shades & Comanche trying to recruit Lucas in the exercise yard.
Shades & Comanche trying to recruit Lucas in the exercise yard.

lukecagecastingMabelKingasBlackMariahMabel King as Black Mariah – Not in the initial origin issues of ‘Hero for Hire’, Black Mariah is nonetheless one of my favorite early Cage villains, and tone-perfect for the kind of story being told. The throwdown between Luke and Stryker would tie up the initial film treatment with a satisfying confrontational climax. But if a sequel possibility rose up, it would be good to have seeds sown and connected to the first film. Taking her name from the paddy wagon and medical transport vehicle nickname “Black Mariah,” she led a gang of criminals using fake ambulances and paddy wagons to pick up people without being questioned. Her gang would cart off the bodies of rich people who died in public places. After taking the valuables from the corpse, they would steal the victim’s home and office keys and also rob those locations before they could be closed up. Mariah could be shown as one of Stryker’s money-makers, and also as a contender to take his place as leader of rackets should anything unfortunate happen to him. Mariah was a 400+ pound female fury who gave Cage a harder fight than most of his male opponents in those early issue runs, and her almost gleeful embrace of her unsavory, cutthroat occupation made her quite memorable. Mabel King (known for playing Mabel “Mama” Thomas on the ABC sitcom ‘What’s Happening!!’) had the right physical qualities for Mariah, plus a lot of stage cred playing heavies. I would love to see what she would have done with this role, and starting with the first Cage film.

Cage, a hero for a price who's not afraid to mix it up with Marvel's best. Spider-Man. Dr. Doom. A member of he Fantastic Four when Ben Grimm bowed out.
Cage, a hero for a price who’s not afraid to mix it up with Marvel’s best. Spider-Man. Dr. Doom. A member of he Fantastic Four when Ben Grimm bowed out.

Casting variations aside, it’s amazing to me that a ‘Luke Cage’ movie didn’t get made around 1974. It would have fit so perfectly the College-Level Cool Comic Book vibe Stan Lee strived to establish. It would also have been an additional ‘first’ to Marvel’s already impressive list. Not only would ‘Luke Cage, Hero for Hire’ have been the first mainstream comic with an African American hero at its core, the film could have been the first feature film of a modern Marvel character. Since Stan & Jack Kirby brought Captain America back from his WWII hibernation in the 1960’s, making him a ‘modern’ character, one could contest that the Captain America serial from the 1940s might deserve that accolade. But Cage as a film hero would have fit the 1970’s Marvel ideal much more closely.

Still, I look forward to seeing what the Netflix folks make of the modern Luke Cage. Based on their Daredevil season, my expectations are high…even if he won’t be the same Cage I ‘met’ on those colorful newsprint pages decades ago. It’s about time, Luke. Any hero who shuts J. Jonah Jameson up this way, that man deserves his own movie!

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