Sunday, May 31, 2009

Silverhawks Sunday IV: Diversity

Masters of the Universe, as a toyline, debuted in 1981. Clamp Champ*, the series' first black figure, was released in 1986, in one of the last waves of toys produced. The entire line had precisely three female figures. The story is pretty much the same for She-Ra--Netossa didn't show up until the last wave, although unlike Clamp Champ, at least she made it onto the TV series. Unless you count horses, the only males in the group were Bow and Kowl--though the shows had significant crossover appeal, the gender wall between the sibling toylines couldn't be more rigid. By contrast, though SilverHawks lasted for a brief two years' worth of figures, it included a woman (Steelheart) and a black character (Hotwing) in the first year's group of figures**.

I'll address the main cast of Silverhawks in future posts; I wrote this post mainly to reminisce a little about Hotwing. He was a magician, and his powers (at least according to Wikipedia--my memories of the show are still fuzzy) were derived from more magical sources. I recall him having some kind of hypnotic power, as well as some telekinetic abilities, and I think it's from his character that I first learned the term "sleight of hand." It's a shame none of this really made it to his action figure (though I'm not sure how any of it really would). Instead, his toy had a wind-up-and-spin torso, and he came with a companion bird named Gyro***.

While I always liked the main SilverHawks cast, my favorite characters as a kid tended to be the auxiliary team members--Hotwing, the magician; Flashback, the time traveler; Condor, the old soldier and bounty hunter (as I recall); and Moonstryker, the cocky kid. In another somewhat surprising turn for '80s toy lines, all those major heroic characters got the action figure treatment. The villains and supporting cast weren't quite so lucky; Melodia, Time-Stopper, and plenty of other prominent characters never even made it to the prototype stage.

Wow, this post is really all over the place. I apologize; hopefully with my schedule freeing up a bit, this is the last of these I'll have to do without having watched the show in years.

*Incidentally, despite not showing up in much story material, Clamp Champ has always been one of my favorite characters, due largely to his cool design and weapon.
**G.I. Joe did the same, and shows a notable commitment among '80s toylines to ethnic and gender diversity.
***Who, incidentally, came with a companion named Tzatziki Sauce.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

SilverHawks Sunday III: Sing-Along

Content-lite this week, because I think the theme song sings for itself.

I always thought SilverHawks had one of the best theme songs of '80s cartoons, right up there with M.A.S.K., Inspector Gadget, and Transformers post-season 2. I mean, how many minute-long usually exposition-driven cartoon themes had guitar solos?


Dear Wolverine,

How do you claw with boxing gloves on?

I'm the best there is at what I do, and what I do is DELETED!!!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Some short thoughts on Wolverine

I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine last night. It was at least as terrible as everyone's been saying, which is a shame, because I like Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, and I thought the first two X-Men movies were quite good. But, where X-Men III suffered from too much story (among other things), this one suffered from far, far too little...among other things. Spoilers from here on out.
  • First, there's the matter of Wolverine's name. Now, my fianceé and I both concluded that he must have taken the name "Logan" from the man he thought was his father, and that his actual father must have been screaming "Mister Logan" or something along those lines at the beginning. This wasn't clear, largely because it wasn't easy to hear what Fathertooth was saying, and could have used some clarifying.
  • What muddies things is that Wolvie apparently started going by "Logan" after he left Stryker's team and started living with Kayla...but then Wraith and Stryker call him "Logan" when he's with them later. This could have been easily remedied, but the way it played out, it became one of the film's many glaring continuity errors.
  • Among the most glaring, as my fianceé noted, was Logan's disappearing clothes. He's wearing his leather jacket in the helicopter (a jacket that's at least very similar to the one he wears in the other films), but not when he gets to the island. At some point, in between cuts, he loses his shirt and ends up in nothing more than a wifebeater. Was it so hot on Three Mile Island that Logan just had to strip down between shots? Take this with the number of times where people suddenly appear where they shouldn't be (when did Gambit get onto the roof after being knocked out? How did Wolverine suddenly reappear in the lab after Kayla's scream, with no apparent doors or windows in that end of the room?) and the number of places where we completely lose track of how much time things take (so they left Logan strapped to the machine, waiting, while they went and pressed him some new dog tags?), and what you should end up with is a jobless continuity editor.
  • Gosh, there sure were an awful lot of characters in this movie. Too bad so few of them had well-defined powers (so Deadpool can...swing things fast?) or any real character development. Stryker's team could have been half its size or smaller, and the movie would have been much better for it.
  • Unfortunately, this movie seems to have taken to heart that timeless characterization shortcut, telling instead of showing. We don't need to see Gambit do a daring escape from Three Mile Island, we just need to tell us how badass he is, and that's totally enough.
  • Proof that Wolverine is better than any other superhero: where other heroes have one character-defining tragedy, Wolverine has four--although the fourth one is really just the second one again. I don't think I've ever seen one character do the Big No this many times in a single film before.
  • You know, I don't really mind Gambit as a character all that much, and I'm glad that this wasn't a film full of Claremontistic stereotype accents, but would it have killed Taylor Kitsch to make a choice about the Cajun drawl? Either use it or don't, but don't let your accent meander all over the south.
  • So, how 'bout those crappy special effects? I can't remember the last time I saw effects this bad in a theatrical film. I'm not sure whose decision it was to apparently go 99% CGI on the claws (at least the metal ones), but they looked realistic maybe once or twice. The other films at least occasionally used prop claws instead of animated ones; were there really none left around after the last three movies? That wasn't the only bad CGI, either--the sky during the cooling tower fight looked like a Windows desktop background, and at one point there was a lens flare that screamed to me "this movie made with Photoshop '98." Xavier at the end looked even more mannequin-esque than in X-Men III, and I have to imagine it'd work better just to use some damn makeup. Everything CGI was noticeably CGI, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of having CGI effects in the first place. We've been doing better computer animation with more seamless integration into live action for over ten years; what is this movie's excuse?
  • Speaking of things that were done better ten years ago, I don't think I've ever seen a less convincing fat suit than the one they used for the Blob. It worked pretty well for one of the close-up face shots toward the end, but otherwise it was rigid in all the wrong ways, never seemed to have any real weight to it, and it certainly didn't react to punches and combat the way anything even resembling real fat would. They tried to use CGI to make it look more realistic, but it only hurt things to see Blob's man-boobs bouncing out of sync with the rest of his body--CGI by the iJiggle app. "Weird Al" had a better fat suit in 1988. This was just lazy.
  • The dialogue was awful. Often laughably awful. "Back to back!" Ugh.
  • So, uh, does Sabretooth suddenly have electrical powers? Seems like lights flickered on and off quite a bit when he was around, for no apparent reason.
  • Why didn't Wolverine notice that there for all the blood on Kayla, there were no wounds? I guess he's not the best there is at forensics.
  • Why was Deadpool's mouth fused shut? Shortly before that, they showed him with lips sewn shut, but then suddenly there's scar tissue all over the bottom of his face. I could come up with a No-Prize explanation, but I really shouldn't have to.
  • One thing the film did that really bothered me was the Boba Fett retcon (the Fettcon?). See, Boba Fett was awesome in "Empire" because he looked really cool and didn't say much and managed to capture Han Solo. He was only marginally more important than the random aliens that populated Mos Eisley and Jabba's palace, but altogether they helped flesh out the universe. Briefly-appearing characters like Boba Fett made the universe feel like it was full of individuals, and that the protagonists weren't the actual focal point of the cosmos. After all, if someone we've never heard of can just swoop in and take out one of the main cast, then maybe they're all that vulnerable; maybe they aren't protected by contractual immortality. But then the Prequels came along, and suddenly Boba Fett isn't just some random badass, he's the son of the prototype badass on whom all the other badasses were based. They went back and changed Fett from just some guy who comes out of nowhere to take out Han Solo into a focal point of the universe, a major part of the cosmic backstory. Doing so might seem like a good idea--fans love Boba Fett, so surely they'll love that he has a more important role, right?--but instead it serves to make the universe seem less vast and well-populated, and it makes the heroes seem far less vulnerable, which kills the suspense. When the same handful of characters keep popping up over and over in the significant events that shape the universe, it starts seeming less like a universe and more like a high school reunion. When the villain taking out the heroes isn't just some faceless guy, but is the faceless guy who was destined from birth to be an amazing yadda yadda, then the heroes don't really have much to fear from the faceless guys after all.

    Point being, in the first X-Men movie, Wolverine was just some guy with his own life and his own problems who got swept up into the grand Mutant war and Xavier's team and all that. Eventually he grew into the role, but he did so as our POV character (alongside Rogue). X-Men Origins: Wolverine makes Logan into a key player from the start, who even frees Cyclops, thus paving the way for the X-Men to be created. It's a silly move, made sillier by the fact that apparently no one who escaped from Three Mile Island thanks to Wolverine ever ran into him again at Xavier's.
  • Speaking of silliness, exactly why would bones appear shiny on an X-Ray?
  • And as long as I've only recently mentioned Star Wars, young Logan screaming with his little bone claws out is about as intimidating as Anakin Skywalker shouting "yippee!" in "Phantom Menace." Showing badasses as kids is generally a bad idea.
  • Couldn't they have slashed up Sabretooth's face a bit, to at least provide some explanation for why he would look so different in the first movie?
  • Why would Adamantium bullets necessarily pierce Adamantium? If I shoot lead bullets at a lead wall, they don't just magically phase through. Sure, it's possible that the sheer force behind the bullets, combined with the fact that they're as hard as Wolverine's skeletal coating, might be enough to break through his head, but then wouldn't he have two big bullet shaped gaps in his skull coating? Besides that, I didn't see his healing brain expel the bullets, nor did I see any exit did his brain just grow around the Adamantium bullets? Does he have four gaps in his Adamantium-coated skull?

There's a lot to dislike about "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," and I'm hard-pressed to think of anything there was to like about it. It, um, had Quicksilver in it for a second or two, that was good, right?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

SilverHawks Sunday II: The Toys

The SilverHawks toys don't represent any kind of watershed in action figure development the way some of their contemporaries did. He-Man was groundbreaking in developing a series based on a toyline (immediately after the legislation banning that was overturned) and including action features in each figure. G.I. Joes made serious leaps forward in articulation and accessorization, with countless vehicles and sprawling playsets like the U.S.S. Flagg. ThunderCats incorporated lots of early electronic technology, with light-up eyes and infrared sensors. Even lesser-known lines like Visionaries and Super Naturals experimented with holograms, and Captain Power had vehicles that interacted with the TV series. Most importantly, Transformers gave us giant robots that turned into other things*.

SilverHawks didn't have anything quite so innovative. Most of the figures had a standard five points of articulation (shoulders, legs, heads); there were several vehicles produced, a couple of role playing toys, and most of the main characters got a release before the line abruptly ended. Most of the heroic characters featured shiny metallic paint decos and some decent detailing. Almost all of the toys had action features of some sort, and the villains (at least) were particularly sturdy, hefty figures. I had several of the accessories break over the years--nearly every figure came with a companion bird of some sort, and the talons which held said birds to their owners' arms tended to be pretty brittle--but I've never had any issues with any of the bricklike villainous figures. The main characters' metallic paint had a tendency to chip and wear off in places, which is not only unfortunate, but is also a problem that persisted well into the late '90s (if not longer), as it was a major complaint about several waves of Beast Wars figures.

This is not to say that there weren't several nice things about Kenner's shiniest toys. First, they had some superbly detailed sculpting for that era and size. They don't exactly meet modern standards, but I know there are an awful lot of toylines that wouldn't have bothered with the same kind of detail that went into the SilverHawks' armor and facial expressions. Heck, I'm having a hard time imagining another toyline of the era where simple accessories like Tally Hawk could merit their own paint jobs. Heck, the Sword of Omens that came with Lion-O was just red with some silver paint on the blade and hilt; they didn't even bother painting in the Eye of Thundera. SilverHawks even had their tiny chest emblems painted on!

Due in part to that level of detail, they managed to avoid one of the major frustrations of cartoon tie-in toy lines: figures that look nothing like the characters on the show. Maybe it was just my anal retentivity, but I was always bothered by the fact that the toy Lion-O's claw shield was bright red instead of gold, and that there was no reduced-size Sword of Omens to put into it. It bugged me that if you tried to make Mumm-Ra's headdress fit him like it did in the show, he looked like an idiot. I didn't like that Man-At-Arms had no mustache, or that She-Ra's headdress wasn't smaller and bronze-colored. SilverHawks toys bypassed all this: they looked almost exactly like the characters they were based on, with very few exceptions. Most of those exceptions were with the villains--in particular, Windhammer and Hardware, who look fairly goofy--but those villains made up for the looks by being (as I mentioned) very durable and typically having extra articulation--knees!

I said that there weren't many innovations to the SilverHawks line, but one sticks out (especially since I did some research** for this post). By this point, every toyline and its brother included some kind of action feature to the figures, and the SilverHawks are no different. The basic figures all had cloth wings that attached at their backs and wrists. You push the arms down to the figures' sides until they lock into place, then squeeze the figure's legs, and the spring-loaded arms spread the wings***. Now, apparently someone along the way thought "you know, this action feature is cool and all, but won't kids want to occasionally have the figures, like, punch people?" This in mind, the designers made the arm socket in such a way that the figure's arm could rotate in addition to springing up and locking down--a rudimentary ball joint****, which would eventually become standard fare. You might think that's a small thing, but I've had much more recent toys with similar or the same action features that lacked this basic concept of motion along two axes (Masters of the Universe 2002 Stratos comes to mind, and I believe one of the Batman Beyond figures suffered from this). One consequence of this construction was that the arms were detachable (as was the leg which activated the spring mechanism) and could be reattached with minimal effort. There still aren't many toylines where dismemberment is such a minor inconvenience, but it's been a staple of Transformers toys since Generation 2. Most of the moving parts will pop off and on fairly easily, anticipating the kind of wear and tear children put on toys. I'm not sure how intentional this was, but it certainly made the toys more durable, and that's always a plus.

So while SilverHawks weren't really a pioneering line in most ways, they did achieve a pretty high standard of quality and detail. I'll talk more about them in future posts, to be sure--especially the vehicles and accessories.

*Also, Go-Bots gave us robots that turned into other things. Some of those things were rocks.
**I went down to the basement and played with twenty-year-old toys. I was, frankly, surprised that they were in such good condition. Quicksilver could stand to be repainted and to have his joints tightened up, but pretty much everyone else is in fine shape.
***At least in theory. My research** reminded me that Copper Kidd's arms were very difficult to get into the locking position, largely due to his smaller stature (the wing fabric was bunched up in the smaller space between his arms and body).
****And admittedly, ball joints weren't necessarily new; G.I. Joes used them, but with a very different construction, and some He-Man toys (Sy-Klone, for instance) used a system that mimicked what most modern ball joints are capable of.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

SilverHawks Sunday I

It's been awhile since this blog had any kind of regular recurring feature (mainly because Freakazoid! videos are pretty scarce on YouTube and I don't have the capacity to make my own right now). Since I'm finally getting back into comics and into a posting groove, and since I've been somewhat inspired by Kalinara's examination of Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, I've decided to revisit a different classic series from my childhood: Silverhawks. There aren't, so far as my searches have turned up, many fansites about the Silverhawks--nostalgia-wise, it seems to rank about the same as Bravestarr, another series I dearly loved. Most of the '80s fan energy seems to have been spent on Transformers, G.I. Joe, ThunderCats, and He-Man.

Silverhawks was essentially a more purely sci-fi version of ThunderCats, which usually leaned more toward sword-and-sorcery fantasy*. It featured the same voice cast, the same animation style, and even characters built on the same basic personality types, most obviously Mumm-Ra and Mon*Star, who both transformed from weak old forms into more powerful ones through an influx of external energy and recitation of similar incantations, like so:

Based on some of the stuff I've written, you'd probably think I'd hate Silverhawks. If you have any knowledge of astronomy whatsoever, the show puts a real strain on your suspension of disbelief, and I suspect that if I hadn't been inoculated with it at a young age, today it would set my rational mind screaming and clawing at the inside of my skull, desperate to get out. At the end of each episode, where G.I. Joe and He-Man would have a moral segment, Silverhawks would have a brief quiz about some facts about space or astronomy; this commitment to science education never quite translated to the actual show, where characters would routinely converse unaided, wander around unprotected, and fall in the vacuum of space.

Despite its scientific shortcomings, I have very fond memories of the show, and I plan to spend a little time each week exploring various aspects of the series, my experiences with it, and so forth, until I run out of ideas or interest.

*Incidentally, what is it about the '80s that lent itself so well to meshing sci-fi and fantasy? I suspect it has to do with the desire to repeat the success of the Star Wars films (which had some fantasy elements, mostly due to cribbing heavily from fairy tales and epics), and some of the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery aspects certainly came out of Conan, but I'm curious what particular confluence of factors made barbarians with laser guns in one hand and broadswords in the other as successful a concept as giant robots that turn into cars, and why that zeitgeist seems to have passed us by almost entirely.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Controlling the Spectrum

Probably the most educational thing ever posted on this blog.I've been of two minds about the whole "emotional spectrum" idea running through the Green Lantern comics of late. My analytical, scientific mind scoffs at the notion. The electromagnetic (EM) spectrum is vast, ranging from radio waves on up to gamma rays, and the visible spectrum is a tiny sliver of it. Moreover, it's a tiny, arbitrary sliver--that it's the only part of the spectrum which humans can interpret visually is an accident of biology, not some fundamental property of the universe. Other animals just here on Earth can view different swaths of the spectrum--bees, for instance, can see into the ultraviolet. In a universe as densely populated as DC's, with beings that can see well into the X-Ray and Infrared ends of the spectrum, it seems silly to single out light with wavelengths between 380 and 760 nm as having particular cosmic significance. It's the kind of anthropocentricity that makes humanoid the default body design among alien races and makes Earth into an effective weirdness magnet. It's understandable from a storytelling point of view, but not really a scientific one.

However, my comic fan mind thinks the idea is really cool, and can't wait to see how it plays out. The fact that there's an upcoming Blackest Night: Superman miniseries gives me hope that my prediction about the Man of Steel will be coming true.

It's not often that my comic fan and scientist mentalities agree and live in complete harmony. Most of the time, they're pretty well separate, but occasionally one of them screams under the oppressive weight of too much suspended disbelief. So when they actually agree on something, it makes me giddy in a very geeky way.

See, the Controllers recently decided to lay claim to the Orange Lantern and the power of greed. It's a natural choice for them, being the self-serving isolationist cousins of the Guardians of the Universe. But this isn't the first time the Controllers have aped the Guardians' corps concept. They've made two other attempts: the Darkstars and Effigy.

So far, so what? I'm not entirely sure what sparked the idea, but a comic fact surfaced from the trivia sponge that is my brain: the Darkstars' main weapon was a maser, which isn't just a misspelled laser. "Maser" stands for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation" (laser, is the same acronym, but with "light" instead of "microwave"). What exactly masers do (and what the Darkstars' fictional masers did) isn't important; what is important is that microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, with a long wavelength that puts them between radio waves and infrared light.

Effigy basically had the same powers as a Green Lantern, except instead of green willpower plasma forming his constructs, he used fire. Fire itself isn't a form of electromagnetic radiation, but it does give off quite a bit of it. Most flames give off visible light of various frequencies, in addition to lots of radiant heat in the form of infrared light, which is just outside of the visible spectrum on the low frequency side. Moreover, flames are plasma, and probably the plasma* we're all most familiar with (with lightning and certain HDTVs coming in close behind).

What this suggests to me is that the Controllers have been trying to tap into the emotional spectrum in the same way that the Guardians have, but with less success. Their first attempt gave them troops with weapons based on the low-energy end of the EM spectrum, and no apparent plasma-construct abilities or emotional ties. Their second attempt was closer to the Corps model, with the ability to wield plasma-based constructs, but there was no clear emotional tie. Effigy's constructs would have emitted all sorts of light from the low-energy end of the EM spectrum, primarily red, orange, and yellow--suggesting a mix of rage, greed, and fear. Most of the emission, though, would have gone to infrared light, which is just outside the visible spectrum and apparently outside the emotional one as well. Having failed twice to create their own corps of warriors with the emotional power and purity of the GL Corps, the Controllers (some of them, anyway) abandoned their development efforts and tried to assimilate a ready-made Lantern.

I like the way this all falls together. The Controllers' efforts clearly show some progress toward the Guardians' model, and I suspect that a lot of the Guardians' early success has to do with their dabbling in magic and getting some celestial assistance. I think this is a rich area to mine for further stories about the emotional spectrum: do microwaves and infrared light have emotions associated with them? What about X-Rays and gamma rays? Since the low-energy end of the spectrum seems to be devoted to "negative" emotions (rage, greed, fear), might we see infrared correspond with lust or envy? Could ultraviolet light or gamma radiation be associated with providence or charity or self-sacrifice? As the spectrum stands, the emotions become more personality-altering and consuming as one moves away from the center, with the Red Lanterns and Star Sapphires losing most of their individuality; would we see the same trend continued as one moved beyond those extremes, or would there be some kind of drop-off, or perhaps just a more subtle consumption of individual personality? Could Air Wave, whose powers fall at the extreme low-frequency end of the EM spectrum, be affected by the emotional spectrum?

Like I said, there's some rich material to be mined there, if a bit mired in science geekery. While I think it'd be interesting to discuss the Controllers' previous efforts in terms of the emotional spectrum, the implications would open up several new storytelling opportunities.

There's also the possibility for further connection to other fundamental aspects of the DCU. There are several core principles guiding the DCU--Order and Chaos, the Endless (yes, they're Vertigo, but they get referenced often enough in-universe--see "Identity Crisis," for instance), the Elemental Realms (the Green, the Red, etc.), the Seven "Deadly Enemies"/Seven "Sacred Virtues" of Man, etc.--and I don't think it's too early to suggest that the Emotional Spectrum is another such principle. While I don't know that I'd want to see a Grand Unified Theory of DCU foundational principles, I don't think it would be ridiculous to mesh a few of them together, draw connections, and so forth. The easiest place is with Shazam's "Deadly Enemies"/"Sacred Virtues," since several of them (Greed, Wrath/Rage, Hope, Fortitude/Willpower) are already represented along the Emotional Spectrum. Endless Nights gave us at least part of the connection between the Spectrum and the Endless, and it wouldn't be hard to claim that Order reigns in the center, but Chaos takes over at the extremes. The door to Elemental connection is most clearly open through The Red/Red Lantern connection, since nature is "red in tooth and claw," ruled by base animal instinct and driven by the need to survive.

I'm just riffing here at this point; I don't claim to be able to unite all these, but I think a good attempt to do so would weave the tapestry of the DCU a little more tightly together. This is the task for the Geoff Johns of the next generation, assuming that the Geoff Johns of our generation isn't already working that way.

One last thought: We have the color spectrum, but one ring doesn't fit**. The Black Lanterns presumably represent death; black isn't a color on the spectrum (it is, in fact, the absence of color), and death isn't an emotion. This suggests to me the existence (or climactic discovery) of the White Lantern, which would obviously represent Life. White, as you'll recall from middle school science, is made up of all the colors of the spectrum. Any guesses how Blackest Night is going to end yet? Or who the White Lantern will be?

*Plasma is a state of matter (like solid, liquid, and gas), in which a gas has been partially ionized, stripping the electrons from the component atoms and molecules and allowing them to move around somewhat freely. It's not to be confused with the liquid part of blood, which shares the same name.
**Okay, at least one ring doesn't fit. "Willpower" isn't an emotion, after all. The only reason it makes sense at all is because it's at the center of the group.

¿Cómo se dice?

So, the current Blue Beetle, Jaime do you pronounce his first name? I've heard most people use the English version, "Jay-mee," but typically that's spelled "Jamie" as opposed to "Jaime." It makes sense to use the Spanish pronunciation, "Hi-may," but I've never heard anyone say it that way.

So, what do you think?