Monday, January 26, 2015

From Russia With Love (1963) | Story

Ian Fleming's From Russia With Love
Dr. No (1962)

Plot Summary

SPECTRE seeks to profit from pitting Britain and the Soviets against each other, hoping to assassinate James Bond in the process.

How Is the Book Different?

The biggest change is substituting SPECTRE for the novel's SMERSH. Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltman wanted to keep the Bond films light-hearted, so they avoided real politics and SPECTRE was a convenient way to do that. Making SPECTRE the bad guys though also meant changing the name of the decoding machine that's the MacGuffin of the story. It's a Spektor in the novel, so for obvious reasons it becomes a Lektor in the movie.

Otherwise, the film's plot is exactly the same as the book with all the same set pieces and story beats. It makes some improvements though, including getting things moving much more quickly and adding a couple of extra action scenes towards the end. It's one of the few Bond movie's that's better than the novel it's based on.

Moment That's Most Like Fleming

Like Dr. No, this is another tough one because so much of the movie is right out of Fleming. But the non-Fleming scene that most feels like Fleming is Bond's date with Sylvia Trench. I'll have more to say about Trench on Wednesday, but Bond's relationship with her in Russia is very much how Fleming describes Bond's relationships in the novels. They're not in any way committed to each other; they just enjoy hanging out and getting it on.

Moment That's Least Like Fleming

When Bond starts to tell Tania - on tape - about an exploit he and M had in Tokyo. Fleming's Bond would never sell the old man out like that, even if they had shared some kind of sexual adventure as Bond implies, which is extremely doubtful. It's meant as a joke in the movie - and it's a funny one - but that whole recorded conversation makes no sense.

Cold Open

Harry Saltzman came up with the idea of the pre-credits cold open for the Bond series, starting with From Russia With Love. His original idea was to introduce one of the main villains in a powerful way by having him track Bond through a SPECTRE training area/obstacle course. Director Terence Young changed it though after seeing Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad featuring a romantic chateau with a Greek sculpture garden.

It is kind of a lovely scene with the danger juxtaposed against quietly chirping crickets and rippling fountains, but it doesn't hold up well next to the more exciting opens that came along later. For now we'll put it in first place because it's the only one on the list, but I expect it to drop off the Top Ten Cold Opens list once we reach the eleventh film that has one.

1. From Russia With Love
2. TBD
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10. TBD

Movie Series Continuity

Bond tosses his hat onto Moneypenny's hat rack from across the room again. And Sylvia Trench is back, of course. But the biggest continuity development is around SPECTRE. They were introduced in Dr. No as a shadowy organization that the villain belonged too, but now we get to meet some of their top members.

We learn that as a result of Dr. No's death, SPECTRE not only knows who James Bond is, but they're pretty familiar with his dossier. When Tania first meets him, she verifies his identity by finding a particular scar on his back. That scar never comes up again in the series, so it's not really continuity, but they sure act like it is in this movie. The biggest development that comes from Russia though is that Bond is now famous, at least with SPECTRE. That was also the case with SMERSH in the novel, but SMERSH died out so quickly after that that it never became an issue. The movie Bond is sometimes going to have to put up with everyone's knowing who he is. Unless that's inconvenient for the plot of course, in which case he won't. Keeping too close an eye on the movie series' continuity is a fool's game.

Friday, January 23, 2015

On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming

It's been a while since we've visited Ian Fleming's Bond, so let's catch up real quick. The last time he appeared was in The Spy Who Loved Me, which offered a complex Bond. As I said at the time, the answer to the protagonist's question about him is that yes, Bond can be nice and he can be kind. He's not a shining hero and he should be nobody's "image of a man" as she put's it, but he's come a long way since Casino Royale and is becoming more human. The Spy Who Loves Me demonstrates that clearly even as it warns us that he's not quite there yet.

When I started this project, I mentioned how Casino Royale's Bond is a man whose selfishness has prevented him from ever having a meaningful relationship with a woman. I looked forward to watching him grow out of that, and knew he kind of would because I knew what would happen in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's been fun watching him mature and become more selfless and I was eager to see him finally meet Tracy and to learn what kind of effect - if any - she would have on him.

Fleming intentionally calls back to Casino Royale many times in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, starting with the casino itself. He reveals that Bond's made an annual trip to Royale-les-Eaux to visit Vesper's grave and it's here that he meets Teresa Draco. Tracy, as she likes to be called, is clearly supposed to be the second major woman in Bond's life and there are lots of similarities between the two of them. When Bond first meets Tracy, she's clearly under a lot of stress and is emotionally manic with him, just like Vesper. Fleming's not explicit about this, but I think it's an easy connection to make that Vesper is on Bond's mind and that Tracy reminds him of her.

Even though I believe that Vesper wasn't actually Bond's first great love, I don't doubt that Bond imagines her that way. I think he cared more honestly and selflessly for Honey Rider and perhaps also Domino, but any man who makes an annual trip to the grave of a woman who betrayed him is obviously carrying a torch. Fleming doesn't show readers a lot of chemistry between Bond and Tracy, but her similarity to Vesper - especially at this location and this time of year - explains why Bond is drawn to her. Beside her being beautiful and an awesome driver, I mean.

He totally takes advantage of her at first, which is something I found creepy. It became no less disturbing and offensive the more I thought about it, but I do at least understand where Bond's mind is when he meets her. It's still very demeaning that he lets her pay off a huge debt to him by sleeping with him, but I think some of that is revenge against Vesper. Not that that's an excuse.

It's not all revenge though, and Bond clearly cares something for Tracy and wants to protect her, however imperfectly (which is very) he goes about it. Fleming has made it very clear that Bond is no hero and that's very true in the opening chapters where Tracy is concerned. He's no good for her and at one point he realizes that "for the first time in his life" he feels totally inadequate.

Bond's flaws are made even more evident when he meets Tracy's father, the head of a criminal organization in Europe. Though Draco tells stories about raping the woman who would become Tracy's mother, Bond admires and even relates to the man. He describes himself to Draco as "ruthless," and it's true. When Draco offers to pay Bond to look after Tracy, Bond's refusal isn't because he has a sense of honor. It's because he knows he won't be any good at it and doesn't especially want to try.

As the story moves away from Tracy and onto its main plot though, she doesn't leave Bond's mind. For example, back at MI6 Fleming introduces us to Bond's new secretary, Mary Goodnight. We've already met Goodnight in "The Property of a Lady," which takes place before On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but was written after it, so this is her real first appearance. Bond seems much more fond of Goodnight in OHMSS that he did in "Property," but he was already in a bad mood in "Property" and it's possible he was just taking that out on Goodnight. At any rate, he's got a playful relationship with her here, but he doesn't pursue it because he's still thinking about Tracy.

He's not all romance though and he's also doing a lot of thinking about Ernst Stavro Blofeld. It's tough to fit "Property of a Lady" anywhere in Bond's timeline than before OHMSS, but it also doesn't fit perfectly before this book either. For that matter, neither does The Spy Who Loved Me. The second chapter of OHMSS claims that Bond has been fruitlessly searching for Blofeld non-stop since the end of Thunderball and that Bond is getting tired of it to the point that he now wants to resign. The best I can do to reconcile that is to say that Bond hasn't actually been looking for Blofeld non-stop, but only feels that he has. He's had some other cases; it's just that the hunt for Blofeld now seems pointless to Bond after so many dead ends.

That changes after Bond meets Draco though. Tracy's dad gives Bond a lead on Blofeld and gets the plot moving. Apparently, Blofeld is interested in setting up a new identity for himself that includes a noble heritage, so Bond poses as a genealogist to get close to the criminal mastermind. His preparation for that role brings out a couple of interesting facts about Bond's past, including that he's from Scotland. Since OHMSS was written after the production of the movie Dr. No, that's not a coincidence. Fleming is retconning in a Scot heritage to fit Sean Connery, just like he includes Ursula Andress as a guest at Blofeld's mountain resort.

As Bond went undercover, I couldn't help but wonder how that was going to turn out. I've talked a lot about Bond as a blunt instrument and his undercover assignments have never gone very well. He gets tired and impatient with them as in Diamonds Are Forever. Surprisingly though, Blofeld brings out the best in Bond, who's able to commit to his cover remarkably well. He makes some mistakes that raise Blofeld's suspicions, but they're understandable mistakes and his cover stories for them are plausible. It's only Blofeld's extreme paranoia that makes him distrust Bond and sends Bond looking for an escape route.

(Incidentally, Bond acknowledges during this part that Universal Export has become a weak, overused cover. I think that's cool and interesting, especially in light of how it's used in the movies and how famous Bond himself becomes in the world of the movies. We'll dig into that more deeply when we discuss those films, but I like that literary Bond recognizes a bad cover when he sees one.)

When Bond does escape, there's a thrilling ski chase down the mountain. At the end of it, Bond is physically spent, but he's also worn out emotionally and psychologically. Fleming really plays up how hard Bond had it on the mountain, but that seems weird  considering so much of the suffering he's endured on other missions. Dr No especially comes to mind, but really all of them put Bond through the ringer a lot worse than hanging out at a resort with a bunch of beautiful women and then having a ski chase. It makes a little more sense though when Bond's back in England and reflecting on how nice it is to be on the job as himself. The implication is that being undercover that long took a lot out of him. More than he - or the readers - realized as it was going on.

Shortly after escaping Blofeld's resort, Bond meets Tracy again. At Bond's suggestion, Draco sent her to get professional help for her depression and it's paid off. Sort of. She's a totally different woman, but I question whether she's improved. Actually, I shouldn't question. In the context of the story, she's clearly happier and healthier. But she's also way less independent and interesting.

I imagine that Fleming saw an inverse relationship between those things; that female happiness and health are somehow in opposition to independence and uniqueness. The Tracy that rejoins Bond at the end of the novel is immature and submissive. She sobs and trembles when he proposes to her and says things like, "I suppose I've got to get used to doing what you say." She makes scenes about the dangers of his job - even using the exact same term to describe it that Le Chiffre did in Casino Royale - which is exactly what Bond's always been afraid of in relationships. He's mused many times over the course of the series about knowing that marriage wasn't for him, because he couldn't put up with that. He hates drama and Tracy is full of the stuff. She's very different in the movie, but the literary Tracy is every bit as bad as all the whiny girls whom Bond has always said he despised. I honestly couldn't understand why he liked her.

And then it hit me. The point isn't that Tracy is some kind of remarkable, new woman that Bond has never encountered before. On the contrary, she's exactly like every woman he's ever encountered before and feared. The point is that she isn't different. He is.

The Bond of Casino Royale would have had zero time for "cured" Tracy Draco. He would have been into "damaged" Tracy, but only for the sex. By the time we get to OHMSS, he's a changed man. He wants her to get well, even if that means becoming someone he's always said he hates. But he realizes, here at the end, that he doesn't hate that at all. He understands and acknowledges that her worry is a manifestation of her love. She's not a drag on him; she's someone who cares enough about him that she wants to take care of him and protect him. And he wants to do the same for her. However imperfectly.

Fleming is either very sloppy about how he communicates this or he's a genius. I like to think it's the latter. None of what I've concluded is spelled out. It's all subtext. On the surface, Bond's relationship with Tracy makes no sense. But in the context of the previous books in the series, he's been growing toward this point all along. He's always had a sappy, sentimental side to him, even back in Casino Royale. It's just that now it's unfettered by his extreme selfishness.

Which makes the last page all the more heart-breaking.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Feud That Never Was [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I was enjoying Bob Powell's Complete Cave Girl (Dark Horse) and something in the editorials got me thinking. Why didn't Edgar Rice Burroughs sue when Sheena, Queen of the Jungle appeared for the first time in the US in 1938? For that matter, why didn't he sue any of the many jungle king and queens over the years.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan in 1912. ERB had the jungle king business all to himself until 1926 when "Roy Rockwood" wrote the juvenile novel, Bomba the Jungle Boy. Did Burroughs sue? Nope. 1927, Otis Adelbert Kline writes the first Pulp Tarzan clone, Call of the Savage (aka Jan of the Jungle) and Tam, Son of the Tiger in 1931. That year we also got CT Stoneman's Kaspa the Lion Man. 1932: Kwa. The flood gates are creaking opening. 1934: Sorak. 1935: Hawk of the Wilderness. 1936: Ka-Zar... and finally Sheena. And then things really explode. Everybody had to have a jungle king or queen.

And Burroughs, who was a shrewd business man, does nothing. Why? Could it have something to do with the fact that British reviewers had accused him of ripping off Rudyard Kipling (along with HR Haggard and HG Wells) in 1914? Kipling himself wrote later in Something of Myself (1937):

"And, if it be in your power, bear serenely with imitators. My Jungle Books begat Zoos of them. But the genius of all the genii was one who wrote a series called Tarzan of the Apes. I read it, but regret I never saw it on the films, where it rages most successfully. He had 'jazzed' the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and 'get away with,' which is a legitimate ambition."

A mixed review at best. But Kipling never sued. He chose to "bear serenely with imitators" (if such a poke in the eye can be called serene). Burroughs own reply to the reviewers' accusations noted that these authors had been part of his youth and he thanked them, but he also noted that the "noble savage" idea is older than Mowgli, dating back to Romulus and Remus. Kipling said nothing for twenty-three years and ERB got on with writing more Tarzan novels. When his turn came to be imitated, he seems to have taken a page from Kipling's book.

There was a rumor circulating in later years that Edgar Rice Burroughs had not taken it all lying down. In fans circles, there was talk of the Burroughs-Kline feud. Otis Adelbert Kline certainly was one of the first and most Burroughs-like of the imitators. He published in the same Pulps as did ERB. If anyone would have been a likely target for a lawsuit it was this former associate editor of Weird Tales.

The story goes something like this. Kline was always careful to set his pseudo-Burroughs in different places than old ERB. So Jan of the Jungle lives in India, not Africa. The Planet of Peril was Venus, not Mars, as Ed had staked that territory out in his Barsoom novels. But in 1932 Burroughs started a new series, this one about a flyer named Carson Napier, for Argosy. The planet was Amtor or Venus, encroaching on Kline's franchise. In January 1933, Kline retaliates in the same magazine with The Swordsmen of Mars and later The Outlaws of Mars. What would ERB do next?

Nothing. Irwin Porges, who had the enormous task of reading decades of correspondence to write Burroughs' biography, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan (1975), never found any trace of a feud. Burroughs had not written so much as a note about Kline. Kline had not flooded him with hot missives. The battle of the Jungle writers was a mere fancy of the fans. Burroughs, in his best Kipling manner, had simply ignored his imitator.

The fact that Burroughs had not pursued litigation left, right, and center may be one of the reasons why we had the Jungle Craze of the 1940s. One successful court case, let's say against Wil Eisner and his Sheena creation and the slough of jungle print-wearing beauty queens and muscle men would have stopped dead in their tracks.

But that is alternative history. It never happened that way. Johnny Weissmuller was movie magic. Sheena was a big hit in the comics and the Jungle Lord and Lady moved into the public domain of tropes. The elements of the Tarzan adventure had solidified over those twenty-five years, to the point where Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck were doing jungle yells in the cartoons. And Ed just laughed along and wrote another book.

Whether he "serenely bore" it, or his lawyers told him it wasn't worth the bother, doesn't matter. Being such an entrepreneur, he might have even thought it was good (and free) advertising. He had given the world a new icon, a new way of seeing something old. In our world of today, when companies actually own the very language we speak, this generosity is surprising. And both Ed and Rudyard have survived the One Hundred Year Test, and we will go on enjoying their gifts for decades to come.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Introducing Dragonfly Ripple, or "Hey! I'm Podcasting!"

A few week's ago, GW Thomas' guest post was about passing our passions on to our kids. I always enjoy his posts, but that one struck a special chord because it's something I've been thinking about for most of my life. For as long as I've bought comics and stuck them in boxes, I've imagined one day handing them on to my child. As GW points out, my son may decide he doesn't want them. And that's okay. Because as GW also points out, there are other things we can bond over. David may not share my love for Alpha Flight comics (or he may; we'll see), but he recently discovered Gene Luen Yang comics all on his own and we share that interest. And outside of comics, we enjoy tons of the same stuff, from Doctor Who and Star Trek to Godzilla and Arrow.

As long as I've been a parent, I've thought about how to introduce David to nerdy things. What's the right age to learn about Star Wars? Should you start with the original trilogy or the prequels? How do you get a kid into Star Trek? Into comics? Into fantasy and science fiction novels? I have thoughts. And I've made mistakes. But I've also had a lot of success.

So it's not like I'm some sort of expert, but this is something I'm hugely interested in and my friend Carlin "CT" Trammel from Nerd Lunch and Pod, James Pod is too. David and I have been wanting to start a podcast together for a while now and when I mentioned that to Carlin, I learned that he'd been thinking about the same thing with his daughter, Annaliese. So now the four of us are talking together on Dragonfly Ripple, a show about parenting and sharing nerdy interests with our kids.

In our first episode, I talk to Carlin and Annaliese about their experience of watching the 1980 Flash Gordon movie together, then Carlin interviews David and I about David's introduction to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We're still finding our sea legs, but it's a fun discussion and I hope you'll check it out and give us some feedback. What kinds of things should we talk about, both in terms of things to share with the kids as well as general topics around nerd parenting?

You can listen below or via iTunes or Stitcher. There's also an official blog for the show and a Facebook page as well as places to check us out on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. Please join us!

Friday, January 16, 2015

My 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2015

I haven't done this before, but I've seen some other people do it and it's a fun idea. Here are the 10 movies I'm most looking forward to seeing in 2015. It'll be interesting to look back at the end of the year and see which were worth the wait.

I had a hard time not making this a Top 20, because there are several other films I'm looking forward to, but I'll just include them as Honorable Mentions. Black Sea and In the Heart of the Sea are both sea adventures, so I'll be wanting to see them. And I'm a big fan of the Fast and Furious movies, so Furious 7 is something I'm looking forward to, but the death of Paul Walker looms over it. That and Justin Lin's not directing it makes me uneasy about how it's going to hold together. I hope it's great, but I have enough worry around it that it didn't crack the Top 10. Mad Max: Fury Road also promises to be great, as does Match starring Patrick Stewart, Carla Gugino, and Matthew Lillard. They just got nudged out by the following:

10. Victor Frankenstein

James McAvoy plays Victor Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe plays Igor, through whose eyes the story is told. It's my favorite monster story with a couple of actors I really like. 20th Century Fox is distributing it, so it's not part of Universal's coming set of interconnected monster movies, but I think that makes me even more interested. I'm looking forward to the Universal flicks, but strictly as fun, B-movie fare. I'm hoping that Victor Frankenstein is able to transcend that.

9. Jupiter Ascending

I still have a lot of faith in the Wachowski Siblings. Like everyone else, I didn't enjoy how the Matrix trilogy ended, but I absolutely love Speed Racer. I haven't seen Cloud Atlas yet, but even so I admire its ambition. And I admire the ambition of starting a whole new space opera series from scratch. I'm hoping it's really awesome and am heartened that Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum are involved. I dig both of those guys.

8. Ant-Man

This wasn't going to make my Top 10 until I saw the trailer. Before that, I figured it was going to be a disposable, fringe entry in the Marvel catalog, but the trailer totally found my Marvel Kid switch and flipped it on.

7. What We Do in the Shadows

It's MTV's Real World with vampires by the folks behind Flight of the Conchords. Looks hilarious and I'll let the trailer speak for itself.

6. Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro and I obviously love the same stuff, so it's no surprise that he's also a fan of gothic romance. Crimson Peak is set in a crumbling castle in the mountains of northern England and features Mia Wasikowska as a 19th century author who marries a charming, but darkly mysterious man played by Tom Hiddleston. And there's Jessica Chastain. Could not be more in my wheelhouse.

5. Jurassic World

I like them Jurassic Park movies almost as much as I like Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. But I also love theme parks and I think I'm most excited about finally seeing this one open and functioning on screen.

4. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Cannot wait to see these characters back together again.





Starting next week, this blog is going to be getting a lot more Bondy and it's all leading up to this movie. I'm a little nervous that my expectations for it are too high, but it's in the right hands.

2. Tomorrowland

I recently saw The Iron Giant again and it reminded me how much I love Brad Bird. He's my favorite writer/director and he's all I need to know about this thing.

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I have lots of nerves about this movie. I tend to like JJ Abrams, but he's disappointed me about as often as he's thrilled me. Some of the trailer looked really awesome, but some of it reminded me of the prequels. I'm trying very hard to avoid spoilers, so I don't expect my anxiousness to go away until I actually see the movie, but I've been waiting for the post-Jedi story to continue on screen for 32 years. It's not just my most anticipated movie of the year, it's my most anticipated movie of probably my lifetime.

But enough about me. What are you looking forward to?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

My Top 10 Movies of 2014

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

I don't know if I like it more for continuing the story of the First Class cast or for rescuing the original cast from the sourness I associated them with after Last Stand. I don't think I like DoFP as much as First Class, but it's a worthy sequel when it could have been an enormous mess. That's faint praise, I know, but I really love both generations of these characters and it was great to see them all treated well. And that Quicksilver scene alone earns it a spot in my Top 10.

9. Noah

I grew up with this story and I know it very well, so I'm extremely impressed and appreciative that Darren Aronofsky was able to make me think about it in a new way. And not just because he threw in some Ents. I wrote a full review of it, but to sum up: the movie makes powerful statements and asks deep questions about the relationship between humanity and nature, the inscrutability of God, and the perils of thinking you've got him all figured out. It has flaws, to be sure, but it moved and provoked me more than any other movie last year.

8. Begin Again

Wow, Keira Knightley had a good year. This is my favorite thing she did though. It looks and smells like a romantic comedy, but it's not. For one thing, though it's funny, it's not really a comedy. For another, though it'll try to fool you a couple of times, romance between the leads isn't the point. The point is about music: both the creation and the business of it. It's only 20% about the music industry though and 80% about what music is and what it means to us. There's a beautiful scene early on - really two different interpretations of the same scene - where Knightley performs a song live and we experience it first from her point of view as the nervous, insecure musician, and then from Mark Ruffalo's point of view as a music producer in the audience. It shows in a powerful way how the same song can give different experiences to different people. There's another moment later on that nails the feeling of putting on headphones in public and letting music change your perception of the world. With such wonderful groundwork laid about what music is, the movie's then able to comment on the way it's commercialized. And it does all this with some great and likable characters, including Knightley and Ruffalo's, but not limited to them.

7. How to Train Your Dragon 2

The first How to Train Your Dragon is one of my favorite animated movies of all time. It's funny, exciting, and emotionally stirring. I had no hope at all that the sequel would top it. And it didn't. But what it did do was go in a whole new direction: an epic fantasy that opened up the world of the first film and raised the stakes. It's a more serious, less joyful film, which means that I didn't enjoy it as much as the first one, but it's just as awe-inspiring in its own way.

6. The Lego Movie

When I was on the Nerd Lunch podcast last year talking about the 75th anniversary of Batman, one of the topics that came up was our favorite Batman movies. I'll never understand how I forgot to rank The Lego Movie just behind Mask of the Phantasm. In fact, since The Lego Movie is actually a Batman/Star Wars crossover, I may have to rethink that number 2 position.

5. Maleficent

I had to see this one twice to appreciate it as much as I do. There are some serious problems with Maleficent, starting with Sharlto Copley's unbelievable character and including some awful CG with Aurora's fairy guardians. That stuff really distracted me on first viewing, but what still stood out was Angelina Jolie's performance as a woman who has been hurt to the point of deeply wanting to hurt back, but hasn't yet lost all capacity to love. It's a powerful struggle and she shows it beautifully and movingly. Meanwhile, Elle Fanning grounds the movie perfectly as the tether that holds Maleficent to... well, "humanity" may not be the right word, but you know what I mean. Anyway, my second time watching it, those are the things I focused on and I loved it.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy

I'd want to call it the Star Wars for this generation if we weren't getting a new Star Wars movie next year. And besides, it's not really the same tone as Star Wars, is it? It's much more snarky and irreverent, but it balances that out with moments of humor, wonder, and just plain coolness. Even though it shares a basic plot structure with many of the other Marvel movies, it does so in its own, joyful way.

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Speaking of plot, that's the reason Winter Soldier nudges ahead of Guardians of the Galaxy on this list. Winter Soldier takes some brave chances, not only by changing the status quo of the Marvel Universe, but also by not being about a bunch of people trying to get the same, all-powerful, cosmic object. Instead, it's a conspiracy thriller and a dang good one. I also love Anthony Mackie and that no one tried to force Cap and Black Widow into a romantic relationship. Boys and girls can be friends! Who knew?

2. Godzilla

I had this at number one for quite a while. It was easily the best time I had at a movie theater last year. A lot of that was manufactured by me and David though. We undertook a massive Godzillathon in the months leading up to May 16, filling in as many holes in our viewing as we had access to. We even made it to a local screening of the 1954 original. When it came time to watch the new one, we had a boys' night out (Diane had a previous commitment) at our favorite theater with the cushy lounge chairs, the Dolby Atmos, and the 30' x 70' screen. We were primed. And the movie didn't let us down. We loved the slow build to the final battle and the epic moments in that battle. When Ken Watanabe says, "Let them fight," we were screaming and whooping and we - and the rest of our audience - just got louder and more excited as the movie went on. The only thing that bumped it down to number two was Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I don't think he's bad in the movie, but he's certainly the only thing about it that I didn't find completely exciting. And that's a bit of a problem when he's the lead actor.

1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A perfect sequel. It continues the story of the first movie, expands on it, raises the stakes, and does all that in a way that's just as emotionally powerful if not more so. Incredibly, it met and exceeded my impossibly high hopes for it. I don't have one bad thing to say about it and that's why it's Number 1.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Four-Color Sci-Fi: Science Fiction Writers Who Wrote Comics [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

When radio became big across America in the late 1920s, there were those who worried it would kill pulp magazines. The magazines quickly adapted though and the two mediums complemented each other. In one case, radio even created one of the biggest selling Pulps. The Shadow began as nothing more than a narrator's voice and an evil laugh by Orson Welles. The voice was fleshed out into a fantastic character and that hero became Street and Smith's top title, selling out every two weeks. Other radio shows such as Suspense and X-Minus 1 adapted stories from magazines.

No, it wasn't radio that killed the Pulps. It was three other media enemies that came about in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The first of these was the paperback. For the soldiers fighting in World War II and Korea, the smaller size made more sense than larger magazines, and after the war was over, well, people just kept reading them.

Television was another very powerful enemy. Unlike radio, the TV networks weren't interested in adapting Pulp fiction. They were producing their own style of stories, largely based on earlier radio titles, and besides, it was free. All you had to do was buy a TV.

The last and most insidious of the enemies of the Pulps was their own spawn, the comics. Many of the Pulp publishers created comic lines to match their Pulp titles. You had Planet Stories, so Planet Comics. These cheaper-to-produce, but comparably priced publications ate away at Pulp profits. By 1955 most of the Pulps had either died or mutated into fiction digests (like Astounding Science Fiction or Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.)

This change in market affected many writers. Some of Science Fiction's writers had no choice but to write both kinds of stories. But before we look at these writers, it is important to mention two SF alumni who had a profound effect on comics. These were Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger. The duo began as editors and SF fans. They were involved in creating the first SF literary agency, and for helping to launch the first World SF Convention in 1939. As rabid fans, they knew everybody, though they did not write stories or draw pictures.

In 1944, Schwartz started AA Comics, the company that one day would become DC, where he would work until 1986. Weisinger became the editor of the Superman line, a post he held until 1970. Schwartz headed the changes in 1956 that would see comics move away from the methods of the comic strip packagers of the 1930s toward more modern approaches to superhero story-telling. And to do this he needed good writers. One of these was Gardner Fox who would give us Hawkman, as well as Batman's utility belt. He eventually worked on every major DC title during the Golden Age. Fox is best known for comics, but he also wrote for a few Pulps like Weird Tales and Planet Stories. Another unlikely comic star was Harry Harrison who started as an artist for EC (pencilling for Wally Wood) and even wrote the Flash Gordon comic strip for a decade. Unlike today, being a comic book writer was not something to brag about (possibly even lower than being a Pulp writer) and so Harrison used many pseudonyms before breaking into SF publishing as the creator of The Stainless Steel Rat.

But Harrison was one of the last. Before him were the stars of the 1940s. Writers like Eando Binder, actually Otto Binder (who continued to write under this weird pseudonym after his brother Earl no longer wrote with him), that gave SF the robot hero, Adam Link in Amazing Stories from 1939 to 1942. While writing SF Pulp, he also wrote Captain Marvel for Fawcett. He would write for Captain Marvel Jr and co-create Mary Marvel with Marc Swayze. He worked for DC in the late '40s and '50s, creating the early stories of Bizarro for Superman and co-created another super chick, Supergirl. Otto left comics for magazine editing. He became an avid supporter of UFO lore along with his old editor at Amazing, Raymond A Palmer.

Manly Wade Wellman is best known today for his occult detectives, John Thunstone (Weird Tales) and Silver John (Fantasy & Science Fiction) but he wrote all kinds of SF pulp as well as receiving a Pulitzer nomination for his historical work on the Old South. He started in comics with Captain Marvel Adventures #1 in March 1941 and ten years later would find himself testifying against his employer in court when DC comics sued Fawcett for plagiarizing Superman. (Mad Magazine would parody this case in 1953 as "Superdooperman vs. Captain Marbles".) Wellman also wrote for Blackhawk and ghosted for Wil Eisner's The Spirit while Eisner did a tour in the army in 1941. Wellman also wrote for DC's Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space in the 1950s.

Frank Belknap Long was a close friend of HP Lovecraft and began his career writing horror stories for Weird Tales. He wrote Science Fiction in the years after Lovecraft's death, appearing in John W Campbell's prestigious Astounding Science Fiction. Between 1941 and 1948 he wrote for Captain Marvel, Superman, the "Congo Bill" stories in Action Comics, Green Lantern, Planet Comics and DC's horror comic Adventures into the Unknown. During his comic writing decade, Long lived in California.

Alfred Bester wrote a small number of Science Fiction novels but each is a classic of the genre. His The Demolished Man and The Stars, My Destination are frequently included in lists of must-read books. Before these novels of the 1950s he wrote comics from 1942 to 1946. Julius Schwartz recruited him to work on Superman and Green Lantern. Bester is credited with penning the Green Lantern oath that begins, "In brightest day, in darkest night..." He also subbed for Lee Falk on The Phantom and Mandrake while Falk was in the army. Bester left comics for radio work. His wife, Rolly Goulko, was a busy radio and TV actress.

Henry Kuttner was a prolific writer in many genres, producing horror and Sword & Sorcery for Weird Tales, Shudder Pulps, hard-boiled Mysteries, as well as Science Fiction. He would marry writer CL Moore in 1940 and the two would write under a number of pseudonyms including Lewis Pagdett and Lawrence O'Donnell as well as under their own names. Kuttner would try his hand at comics in Green Lantern between 1944-46 but would return to magazine writing.

Sam Merwin Jr, like Fredric Brown and Robert Bloch, wrote in both the SF and Mystery genres. He began as an influential editor at Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder and other Pulps. He gave up editing and became a freelance writer in 1951. One of his first jobs was writing for DC's Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space until 1953. He wrote a number of SF novels and stories before returning to editing and writing for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

Edmond Hamilton started writing comics in 1946 because the Pulp markets were so bad after the War. Before this he was a regular in Weird Tales, Wonder Stories, the Clayton Astounding, and Amazing Stories. He is often cited as the co-creator of the sub-genre of Space Opera. He wrote the Captain Future novels between 1940-46. In comics, he started on DC's Green Lantern but eventually worked on all the Superman titles, Batman, and was instrumental in designing the Legion of Superheroes. He is credited with helping to create the idea of the DC Universe. We wrote the "Chris KL99" strip for Strange Adventures. This comic was loosely based on Captain Future. He left comics twenty years later in 1966, because he and fellow SF writer and wife Leigh Brackett were traveling more often.

Only Gardner Fox hung on longer. He left comics in 1968 when DC refused to give him benefits or royalties on his long canon of work. He turned to writing Sword & Sorcery and adventure novels for Tower paperbacks. Of all these Science Fiction writers, Fox has most often been garnered with awards and accolades, such as the Bill Finger Award, the Eisner Hall of Fame, and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame, having worked in comics for thirty-one years.

What this infusion of SF talent did was add a dimension of imagination to comics that was lacking in the 1930s. The first comics featured a fantastic character, but once beyond the strange gimmick the story was pretty pedestrian, with the hero punching out a bunch of crooks. The Science Fiction writers expanded the possibilities of what comic stories could be until anything was possible. So while I'm watching Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern say those famous words, or Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers fight aliens from another dimension, or Batman use his weirdly dark gadgets, I think of my favorite Pulp writers and smile. Comics may have helped kill off the Pulps, but nowhere else does the flame of SF Pulps burn as brightly today.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.


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