Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Rocket Trips #2: All-Star Superman #1 - 2005

I don't know what's weirder, that "All-Star Superman" is fourteen years old or that this blog is old enough that I commented on the first issue when it came out. But I figured if I'm going to use the origin here as a way to comment on the rest of them, it seems like a good choice to cover second. 

Creative Team: Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant, Phil Balsman, and Travis Lanham.

All-Star Summary: Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.

Key Elements: At first blush, there's not much to say here, right? This is the eight-word origin that's become so iconic that I'm using it as a shorthand for this whole project.  A planet is doomed. A pair of scientists watch their world crumble around them. A spaceship flies away from the rubble. A kindly couple in rural attire finds a red blanket in tall grass. And if we consider the two-page spread that follows, we see Superman, framed against the brightness of a yellow sun. 

Interesting Deviations: Like Action Comics (vol. 1) #1, not much gets named specifically. No mention of Krypton or the names of those desperate scientists and kindly couple. Perhaps the most striking omission is that there's also no mention or even depiction of a baby. We know it's meant to be there because the story is so familiar that eight words can give us the basic jist, but leaving little baby Kal-El out of his own origin—not even depicting his little baby hands or anything in that first-person point-of-view fourth panel—is a bold and surprising move. I wonder how many people working just from memory would recall that the baby is never shown, and would instead conflate it with the similar first-person panels from Superman/Batman #1, which came out less than three years prior.

The passing motorist is cut out here, and the Kents are seen pretty explicitly discovering the baby, which has been the status quo since the Bronze Age or so. The plural "scientists" in reference to Jor-El and Lara is nice, subtly referencing that Lara was characterized as an astronaut back in the Silver Age, giving her science credentials separate from Jor-El's.

Additional Commentary: The explicit choice to include "last hope" in that short description hearkens back to Superman: Birthright, which established (for the first time, I think) that the S-shield is not just the crest of the House of El, but a Kryptonian glyph that stands for "hope." While Superman being the Last Son of Krypton and the last hope to save a dying people has been baked into the concept from the beginning, it's interesting to see an element from around two years before making it into this origin, however obliquely.

The Rocket: It's definitely different, but not particularly distinctive. It's got some of the starburst-shape that we'd see in the original Donner film and in Superman: Birthright, but otherwise it's just kind of gray. When we see Kryptonian architecture later in the series, it's all fluid crystal spires, and it would have been nice to see something more similar to that here.

One out of five exploding Kryptons for this one.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Chucky, It, and the Translation of Nostalgic Horror

There's a new "Child's Play" movie out. I'll start by saying that, despite being a big fan of slasher movies, I've never actually watched any of the "Child's Play" franchise. Even though it somehow managed to outlast "Nightmare on Elm Street," "Friday the 13th," and "Halloween" without rebooting, I've just never taken the plunge. So keep that in mind as I talk about this stuff from a complete outsider perspective.

With that out of the way, here's the new Chucky. 

I've seen a few different pictures of the updated doll, with varying degrees of uncanny valley-ness and similarities to the old version, largely depending on the lighting, but they all make one thing pretty clear: this is the same basic doll from 1988, but a little sleeker and slimmer. 

The thing I appreciate about that is that they haven't gone the same route as "It" and "Annabelle," making their titular creatures look actively creepy, which eliminates the surprise and scare factor of having something innocuous and commonplace made scary by doing scary things. Which is good, because that seems to me to be the whole point of "Child's Play" and the larger "killer doll" genre as concepts. 

But I see a related problem here: Chucky isn't commonplace anymore. The original Chucky doll was styled after the My Buddy and Cabbage Patch Kids dolls that were incredibly common in the mid-80s. I remember the My Buddy commercial, and the only reason I never got the Cabbage Patch Kid doll that I wanted for like a week when I was four is that my mom thought they looked ugly. But today? Sure, the thirty-year nostalgia cycle has brought Cabbage Patch Kids and Teddy Ruxpin back to big box store shelves, but the new Chucky has ditched the Cabbage Patch cheeks and chin, leaving only the slightly-updated My Buddy elements that look like nothing on the shelves today. 

If you wanted to do "Child's Play" in 2019, the place to start isn't by putting a fresh coat of paint on the original film, it's by cracking open the movie and getting to the core concept: a toy that looks disturbingly like ones that children love comes to life and murders people. My generation had Chucky, my parents' generation had Talky Tina. And I've seen enough of my mom's old dolls to know that Talky Tina looked a lot like what little girls were playing with in 1963. 

As someone who spends a not insignificant amount of time browsing toy aisles, I think your best basis for a modern "Child's Play" would be some kind of blind-box toy, like Hatchimals or LOL Surprise or other things I see advertised when I watch "Teen Titans Go!" like I did this morning. If you want to go the doll route, I think options are a little limited by the domination of multimedia franchises, your DC Superhero Girls and Barbies and Disney Princesses. I assume Monster High and My Little Pony still hold a decent share of the willowy wide-eyed doll market, which NuChucky seems to be leaning into facially, if not in any other aspect. I suppose you could also do something closer to the American Girl dolls, which would have a closer look and size to the original Chucky, even if they'd require some other changes. 

It's similar to some of the problems with 2017's "It." It's all well and good to want to move the children's section from the 1950s to the 1980s, but that transition doesn't work without making other alterations, so that the story concept—in particular, the aspects that make it scary—fit in the new cultural context you've transplanted the story into. In 1958, "clown" meant Bozo and Red Skelton and Barnum & Bailey. In 1985, "clown" meant John Wayne Gacy and "Poltergeist." In a lot of ways, It as a novel tracks how clowns lost their innocence just as the protagonists did. 

Pennywise works in the It novel and original miniseries because it's familiar. It's somewhat believable that Georgie Denbrough would see a friendly clown and strike up a conversation with it in 1958. That's a lot less believable in the Stranger Danger 1980s, where even aside from the fear of child kidnappings (something the new movie did incorporate into the update) clowns were viewed with a much greater level of suspicion and fear.

If you wanted Pennywise to be something friendly and familiar in a 1988 setting, you'd either make him a cartoon character with heavy merchandising, or you'd make him a Muppet. I suppose he could be a Mister Rogers/Captain Kangaroo/LeVar Burton-style children's TV host, but I think that would require more significant changes to the story structure. Though playing on some of the more salacious urban legends about characters like Barney the Dinosaur and Fred Rogers could make for very interesting horror. 

Similarly, in the novel, Eddie Kaspbrak is a hypochondriac and germophobe, so to terrify him in 1958, Pennywise takes the form of a "leper"—who's later determined to be a syphilitic hobo. The recent movie keeps this scene intact (though losing a lot of what gave it context), but as someone who was a kid in the '80s, syphilitic hobos weren't exactly commonplace fears. Instead, D.A.R.E. and urban myth and TV drilled into me a fear of "junkies" and AIDS even in the rural midwestern towns where I grew up. It's especially galling because there is a thematic thread of homophobia and the AIDS epidemic running through the 1980s segments of the It novel, so it wouldn't have been a whole-cloth invention either. 

The problem here is one of transliteration rather than translation. When converting a text from one language to another, you can try to do a one-to-one, word-by-word literal transliteration, but in doing so, it's likely that you'll lose some of the meaning. On the other hand, you can try to capture the intended meaning and connotation, but may have to be a little less literal in your word selection. The balance between these two approaches is part of why there's so many different modern English versions of texts like Beowulf and The Odyssey that were written in (effectively) different languages. It's why there's a current furor among Internet man-children that Square Enix censors shrunk Tifa's breasts in the new Final Fantasy VII remake

I think a similar issue plagues these nostalgic horror movies. They try to update only the setting and aesthetics without realizing how integral those things are to the story and the scares. The result is a warmed-over remake that doesn't pack the same punch as the original because it's tapped into fears from thirty years ago instead of current fears.

And it's not hard to see why this would happen. If you remade "Child's Play" to be about an American Girl-style doll, you'd end up alienating the Chucky fans and creating immediate bad press from the people most likely to pay for a ticket. And I'm sure the copyright holders and corporate powers are in play here: Chucky is a known quantity with merchandising possibilities and brand recognition, and especially in the current Hollywood economy, I can't imagine many of the pursestring-holders ditching that for a less recognizable main character. 

I'm not one of the doom-and-gloom types who decries the current state of Hollywood as relying exclusively on adaptations, sequels, and reboots. Frankly, I think that's always been true of Hollywood to one degree or another. But it's true that Hollywood is increasingly dominated by a few large media corporations, and that the economics of moviemaking and theaters in general mean that there's even less willingness to branch out and take risks. And that is a pretty distressing state of affairs, and not just for horror.

"Child's Play" and It weren't made to fit some nostalgic idea of what they should be. They were made to comment and capitalize on issues and anxieties of a particular culture at a particular moment in time, and that's what made them memorable and effective as horror. You can no more sever a story from its context and setting and expect it to work in a new one than you can transplant a heart from one body to another without reconnecting any of the vessels. If you don't connect your story to the rest of the setting, you're going to end up with a bloody, lifeless mess. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Rocket Trips #1: Action Comics (vol. 1) #1 - 1938

Well, we had to start somewhere. Action Comics (vol. 1) #1 contains the first (canonical, comic book) appearance of Superman and starts with a one-page opening sequence that remains a marvel of condensed storytelling. I covered it in some detail way back when.

Creative Team: Jerome Siegel & Joe Shuster.

All-Star Summary: Doomed planet. Desperate scientist. Passing motorist. Remarkable orphan.

Key Elements: A distant world is dying. A scientist places his infant son in a "hastily-devised space-ship" and launches it toward Earth. The baby is discovered by a passing motorist and taken to an orphanage. The child has superhuman strength, and his powers of strength, speed, and invulnerability grow as he reaches maturity. He uses his powers to "benefit mankind" and becomes Superman, the champion of the oppressed.

Interesting Deviations: This is the first origin, so it can't really deviate from anything, but eighty-two years of hindsight allow us to see how much is missing, and what's included instead. There's no mention of Superman's birth mother, no mention of Ma & Pa Kent, no names for any of the sci-fi elements at all. Instead of the Kents, there's a passing motorist and an orphanage. Superman's powers are credited to an advanced physical structure and likened to the abilities of ants and grasshoppers. His powers are said to grow when he gets older, which sticks around a little in the Golden Age but then disappears until the Byrne reboot. 

Additional Commentary: Can we trade out "Man of Tomorrow" for "Champion of the Oppressed" as a moniker for Superman? That's one that really needs to make a comeback.

The Rocket: Not much to look at, really. Just your average bright-red Amazing Stories sci-fi rocket.

I give this rocket two out of five exploding Kryptons. 

Rocket Trips #0: Origin Stories

Once upon a time, just a little over nine years ago, I started a little series examining the different versions of Superman's origin story, in publication order, on this blog. That series petered out after nine entries, halfway through George Lowther's 1942 novel, The Adventures of Superman. There's half of an entry finishing off that novel's origin story in my drafts from...*cough* 2011. 

Since then, we've had a bunch more Superman origin stories, including flashback sequences in "Man of Steel (vol. 2)" and the current "Superman: Year One." And I'd like to dive back into the Superman origin waters. 

But I'm older and wiser now, and I realize that I made some avoidable mistakes. Chief among them being that I tried to stick to the origins in chronological order. I think there's value to that, in seeing how the myth evolved over time, but it also means spending a lot of time tracking down hard-to-find Golden Age and Silver Age sources. I really dig Golden and Silver Age comics, but I also know there were versions of Superman's origin told in the gap between 1961 and 1978 in that old master list, and I haven't found any clear indication of where they were. 

So I'm going to play hopscotch through the decades, covering Superman origins as I encounter them, and focusing on the key elements that carry over from version to version, as well as the interesting deviations. I can't promise a regular schedule or fascinating writing, but I'm going to try. Blogging may be a dying art, but I'm not ready to close the Fortress door just yet, and this is an easy way to have some consistent content that I can't just dump in the whirlpool of social media. 

Besides, I made a logo:

I hope you enjoy coming on this journey with me! The first installment will post later today!