Friday, February 27, 2015

Star Wars: The Questionnaire



The blog is going to be heavily Bond-focused this year leading up to SPECTRE, but there's no way I'm ignoring the other, even bigger year-end movie. I've got thoughts about a series of Star Wars posts, but while those are percolating how about we kick things off with another giant questionnaire? I did one of these a few years ago and also recently talked about many of my Star Wars feelings on Nerd Lunch, but there are some different questions in this one, so let's go again.

Thanks to Kelly Sedinger for finding this and posting his answers. Like Kelly, I find some of the questions inappropriate for various reasons. The ones that are inappropriate for practical reasons (the questionnaire was created before the announcement of Episode 7, which makes some questions moot), I'll figure out a way to answer anyway. The one that's just disgusting, I'm gonna skip.

1. Which film is your favorite of the Original Trilogy?

Star Wars. I know that Empire Strikes Back is the technically superior film, but it has two major problems. One is that Joss Whedon is right and it's not a complete movie. The other is that Vader being Luke's dad - while an okay idea in itself - is clearly pulled from someone's butt and not at all supported by anything in the first film. Star Wars, on the other hand, is a satisfying movie all on its own. It introduces and opens up a galaxy that absolutely I want to come back to and explore, but I want more because Star Wars fires my imagination; not because it promises to resolve plot points.

2. If you enjoy the prequels, which one is your favorite?

I do enjoy the prequels; at least parts of them. Their issues get bigger as the trilogy progresses, but I like more about Phantom Menace than I don't and it's my favorite of them. Qui-Gon, Darth Maul, the podracing scene, the final lightsaber duel, and John Williams' "Battle of the Fates" all make it worth watching.



3. How old were you when Episode 1 came out?

32

4. Which of the movies have you seen in the theater?

All of them.

5. Did you go to any of them on opening night?

All of the prequels. Maybe Return of the Jedi? Jedi would have been the first one where I was old enough to drive myself to the theater, but I don't have a specific memory of seeing it on opening night.

6. Who is your favorite character from the Original Trilogy?

Chewbacca. Sometimes I want it to be Han, but I don't especially like his character arc and Chewie is consistently awesome. I love the monster-with-a-big-heart archetype and Chewie is one of the best of those. I also love the dichotomy between his fearsome appearance and his inherent cowardice, and how his fierce loyalty to his friends always leads him to overcome the latter.

7. Who is your favorite character from the prequels, if you have one?

Qui-Gon. He's gone too soon, but that might be to his advantage. If Revenge of the Sith didn't exist, my favorite would be Padme, but the trilogy loses her by the end. Qui-Gon on the other hand impresses me and then gets out of the story. He pushes a lot of buttons in my psyche, starting with the conflict between his faithfulness to the Jedi way and his questioning of its leadership.

8. Have you read any of the books or comics?



Lots; especially early on. Publishers eventually got to a point where they were producing them faster than I could read them, so I gave up. But for quite a while I kept up and loved it.

9. Favorite book or series? Favorite SW author?

Very hard to choose, but I think I'm going to have to go with AC Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy (The Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit, and Rebel Dawn). It not only fills in more details of Han’s early life (how he became an outlaw, how he met Chewie, etc.), but also includes as part of its backstory some of my nostalgic favorites: Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures (Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy) and the weird, but entertaining Lando Calrissian Adventures by L Neil Smith.

So Crispin might be my favorite of the EU writers, but I have to acknowledge Timothy Zahn of course for writing the excellent Thrawn trilogy and single-handedly reviving everyone's interest in Star Wars.

10. Favorite comic?

As goofy as it was - and maybe because it was so goofy - Marvel's run. Especially the issues between Star Wars and Empire. I also have a lot of fondness for the newspaper strips written by Archie Goodwin. They covered that same time period between Star Wars and Empire, which is apparently my favorite.

11. Favorite character from the Expanded Universe (EU)?



I so want to say Jaxxon. Okay, I'm saying Jaxxon.

12. Favorite villain from the EU?

Mosep Binneed, Jabba's accountant, though at the time of his introduction he was introduced as Jabba himself. When Jabba first appeared in the Marvel series, he hadn't yet appeared on film and no one knew what he looked like, so Carmine Infantino made up his own version. Later on, that was retconned and Infantino's version became an entirely different character, but I actually prefer the slimmer, more active take on the character.

13. If you had your own ship from the Star Wars Universe (SWU), what would it be? It could be a mash-up/ugly.

A YT-1300 light freighter, naturally.

14. Would you rather be Sith or Jedi?

Jedi. They're not my favorite aspect of the Star Wars universe, but I do find their philosophy interesting. There's a lot of it I disagree with (and that's the direction I'm thinking about for a series of posts), but it's vastly better than Sith philosophy.

15. Would you rather be a Rebel or a member of the Imperial Navy? What would your role be?



Rebel. Preferably of the Han/Chewie/Lando variety: an independent agent working to further the cause rather than a cog in the military machine.

16. If you could be any species from the SWU which would you be?

Wookiee. Cool tree houses with technological perks. The Nautolans are cool too, though.

17. If you could date any species from the SWU which would you pick?

This is where the questions start getting weird and inappropriate for me. If I wasn't an old, married dude, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but I am old and married and I don't really think about fiction that way anymore. Younger, single me would have picked humans though.

18. If you could date/marry any character from the SWU who would you pick?

Same disclaimer, but Younger Single Me would have gone for Padme.

19. If you were going to bone just one Star Wars character and you never had to see them again, who would you pick?

There's no way for me to answer this question without feeling totally gross about myself, so on to the next one.

20. If you could BE one SW character, EU or not, who would you be?



As much as I love Han, I'm going with Lando on this one.

21. What would your SWU name be?

According to the Star Wars Name Generator, it's Smorphi Cheleb, a troublemaker from The Hypori Sector.

22. What color would your lightsaber be, what kind would it be (double-bladed, single blade), would you dual-wield, and what kind of grip would it have?

I'm a man of simple tastes. Gimme a blue lightsaber with the old-fashioned, Luke Skywalker grip.

23. Do you own SW merchandise?



24. How much, to date, do you think you’ve spent on SW merchandise?

No idea. Maybe a couple of hundred bucks?

25. What is your favorite SW possession?

The Millenium Falcon that fits the action figures and makes all the cool noises. That's probably half my lifetime Star Wars budget right there.

26. Do you have a favorite SW artist? If so, who?

Grant Gould.

27. Are there items you do not own but covet? What are they?

Not really. If I did, they'd be actual props from the movies and not replicas. Like Vader's helmet from Empire or the chess board from the Falcon.

28. Are there items that are not made but that you wish were made? What are they?

A working Millenium Falcon?

29. Did Han shoot first?



30. Did Boba Fett, in your opinion, ever leave the Sarlacc or did he die there?

He totally left.

31. Are there things about the movies you wish you could change? If so, name three.

The prequels are too easy targets for this question, so I'll stick to the original trilogy.

1) Boba Fett's death. I really don't mind that he died; it's how he died that's so underwhelming.

2) The Ewok battle. Again, I don't mind that they were able to defeat the Imperial forces, but a lot of the way they did it was ridiculous. Giant smashy logs are awesome, but slingshots with rocks are totally lame.

3) Luke and Leia as siblings. That should've been my first answer. Stupidest plot twist ever.

32. Which era would you want to live in?

The Rebellion. In many ways it's the toughest era, but it's also the most exciting to me. That could be nostalgia talking though.

33. What SW games have you played?



Not many video games except for some early Atari ones, but I ran a long campaign of the West End Games RPG. The players were all interested in playing bad guys and I fought against that for a while, but finally gave in. I let them go back in time and change the universe so that the Empire defeated the Rebellion, Luke Skywalker was killed, and Leia became Vader's apprentice. They really enjoyed it and it was an interesting way to play in that universe.

34. Do you play/own Star Wars Miniatures?

Nope.

35. Favorite SW costume for men?

Darth Vader.

36. Favorite SW costume for women?

Padme.

37. Have you ever dressed up as a SW character? Who/When/Why?



Halloween 1977.

38. Do you ever have SW sex fantasies? If so, have you ever acted them out?

Nope and nope.

39. Do you Ship any SW characters who aren’t together? Who/why?

I do, actually. Qui-Gon and Shmi.

40. Have you ever written SW fan fiction? Can we read it?

I have, actually. In 5th grade, we had to write a short story and I worked Threepio and Artoo into mine. I think I still have it somewhere, so maybe one day I'll transcribe it for the blog.

41. Have you been to a Celebration or plan on going to one?

Nah. I'm not hardcore enough anymore.

42. Have you ever been to Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World?



Nope. I love Disney World, but not when it's that crowded.

43. Do you wish they had Star Wars Weekends at Disneyland?

Sure. I've never been to Disneyland, but I'm sure there are many fans on that coast who would like that.

44. Best section you’ve experienced on Star Tours?

I've only ridden Star Tours a couple of times and don't remember much about the sections. What I do remember though is that the last time we went Diane was identified as the Rebel who kicked the whole chase into motion, which was pretty awesome.

45. What initially brought you to the SW fandom?

My dad. My brothers and I had a passing interest in Star Trek and Dad had heard that Star Wars was even better, so he took the whole family to see it. It was in the theaters for over a year and I lost track of how many times I went back after the thirty-somethingth re-watch.

46. Do you consider yourself a SW Fanboy or Fangirl?



I've never described myself as a fanboy or fangirl of anything.

47. Have you seen Fanboys? Favorite character and/or quote?

Haven't seen it.

48. Do you wish they would make 7, 8, and 9 or do you think they should be done with it?

I've always wanted it. Even when Lucas announced the prequels, I saw those as something we had to get through in order to have what I really wanted: the continuation of the story.

49. If they ever made 7, 8, and 9, do you think it should continue the Skywalker Legacy or use entirely new characters? Or something different?

Like Kelly said in his answers, it's not Star Wars without Skywalkers.

50. Do you watch The Clone Wars?

We just finished Season 2 as part of a re-watch of all the Star Wars movies and TV shows. The plan is to get through everything before Force Awakens. I wish the Jedi in it wouldn't conveniently forget to use their powers just to keep the plot moving, but it's mostly a great show so far. It helps a lot with Anakin's transition to the Dark Side and I'm curious to see if it'll actually make Revenge of the Sith more watchable. If nothing else though, The Clone Wars stands on its own as an excellent adventure series that understands what makes Star Wars great.



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Battle of Five Armies: Of Orcs and Epics [Guest Post]



By GW Thomas

As I sat watching the last of The Hobbit trilogy of films I realized something. We take so much for granted in the 21st Century. Imagine if I had a time machine and could go back to 1936. I'd step out (fighting the desire to find a newsstand and buy copies of Weird Tales in pristine condition) and meet some fan of Fantasy (after a very long search) and we'd talk. We could discuss Lord Dunsany, perhaps the recently deceased Robert E Howard, or ER Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. Then I'd mention something about vast orc armies and I'd get a strange stare. Of course, Tolkien's The Hobbit hasn't been published yet. My mistake.

But it isn't the word "orc" that is the problem. It's the entire concept of vast, epic battles between men and orcs that is the stumbling block. The Battle of Five Armies is the first of these. My 1936 companion may be ready for the idea, but he hasn't got it yet. I jump back into my time machine, whispering one beautiful word in his ear, "Hobbit," and disappear. (Unfortunately the experience of seeing me disappear in my time machine drives him to read Amazing Stories or Astounding instead and we lose him from the Fantasy pool. What can you do?)

Eighteen years later my machine takes me to see Tolkien give us more with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's vast ideas are starting to light new fires like Carroll Kendall's The Gammage Cup in 1959, with its army of mushroom warriors. I jump another ten years to see the campuses of America (along with an unauthorized paperback edition) drive Tolkien's popularity to the point where Led Zeppelin is singing of Gollum and Ringwraiths. We are approaching critical mass...

In 1972, Gary Gygax is about to sit down with a bunch of buddies and Dungeons & Dragons is on. Those stats-driven warriors need something to fight. Of course, it has to be a goblin. After Tolkien's estate and Gygax hash out the copyright of certain terms, the deal is done. Pairing this with the success in 1977 of the Tolkien clone, The Sword of Shannara, epic fantasy is now set to boil. The creation of Derivative Fantasy! Anybody can write of such creatures! The world of Fantasy now has its generic monster, the Orc. In any video game, any book, any RPG, the orc is the opponent in armor that warriors face everywhere.

But it wasn't always so. That is my point. The idea took a long time to get here. As scholars such as Michael Drout point out, it began in 1872 with a children's book by a Scottish minister. The book was The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald. Scholars and fans make a lot of noise about William Morris starting off the Modern Fantasy genre with his pseudo-Medieval novels like The Wood Beyond the World (1894), and he was vital in insuring that Fantasy would become a genre dominated by novels. But it is Macdonald that gave us the goblin foe; who gave Tolkien the leg up to write The Hobbit; who gave CS Lewis the inspiration to write of animal and monster armies in Narnia. Macdonald's tale of Curdie and the princess Irene seems quaint by today's epic, grand scale. A common boy and a restless princess discover a plot by the goblins to attack the castle, which eventually leads to an armed conflict. Despite the fight being appropriate for children, it did open the door to Fantasy tales in which humans are versed against an inhuman army. Eddison would use it to create two human armies in The Worm Ouroboros (calling them Demons and Witches), but it was Tolkien's The Hobbit that cemented the idea for all time.

And one hundred years later that, resulted in the genrification of the orc as common military assailant. World of Warcraft; Orcs Must Die!; the latest hack Tolkien-esque bestseller. It's everywhere and its not going away any time soon. For better or worse, Fantasy has an epic scale today. The quaint, personal-sized Fantasy tale, be it the glorious works of Thomas Burnett Swann or even the Howardian tale of the lone barbarian, is awash in a sea of orcs and battle. There's not much you can do...

For example, back around 1988, I met L Sprague de Camp at a convention in Calgary. I spoke with him about a project I had abandoned, that of converting his Novaria novels to an RPG setting. He thought I should keep at it, but I knew ultimately it wouldn't work. Why? No orcs. No elves. Novaria is a Fantasy world filled with humans. There are demons and magic, but all the armies are men. You can't fight the tide with your bare hands.

So there I sat this Christmas, watching what I felt was the best of the three Hobbit films, thinking: all Fantasy writers today have to make their peace with Tolkien and his orc armies. Either you accept them as part of what you are writing or you have to reject them and write something that is inherently anti-Tolkien. There is no middle ground any more. A book I read over the holiday made this even more evident to me. It was Conan the Invincible (1980) by Robert Jordan. In that rather pedestrian tale, Conan's enemy wizard has a race of scaly-skin henchmen called the S'Tarra. They are hidden in his castle fortress, breeding and preparing for the taking over of the world. Is it any surprise Jordan gave up writing Conans for pseudo-Tolkien in The Wheel of Time series?

Another author of note, one who shares Tolkien's double middle initials (Raymond Richard, not Ronald Reuel), is George RR Martin. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice shows a new ingenuity with this Tolkien dilemma. Martin has combined the two most commercially successful Science Fiction (Dune) and Fantasy (Lord of the Rings) franchises to create the Game of Thrones books. This sounds like I am disparaging him but this is far from the truth. I have the highest respect for GRRM. First off, for his amazing story writing before Game of Thrones with classics like "Way of Cross and Dragon" and "Sandkings," but secondly for his masterful control of character, which allows us to watch or read a story with dozens of distinct characters, each worthy of a tale of their own. So I glibly say "combined the political essence Dune and the fantastic world of LOTR," but go ahead; try it.

Really what George was doing was that thing we must all do as modern Fantasy writers. Dealing with Tolkien. I believe GRRM has chosen to accept Tolkien, and though we haven't seen much of it yet, "Winter is Coming." What does that mean? Orc (or White Walkers and Wildings) armies. Tolkien is coming and George has the cajones to make us wait through six fat books for it. Long live the orc! He's going to be with for some time yet.

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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Graveyard Rats: Kuttner Komiks [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

"The Graveyard Rats" (Weird Tales, March 1936) by Henry Kuttner was a spectacular debut for a writer of horror. Though in later years Kuttner seemed embarrassed by the tale, it remains one of the creepiest stories to come out of the pulps. (One blogster claims it has been reprinted thirty-five times. I don't doubt it.) The plot follows Masson, a corrupt undertaker, who wars with the rats in the graveyard where he robs the dead of their plunder. When a particularly rich corpse is taken, Masson follows the culprits into their twisting tunnels. The battle is on. Masson, using his revolver, fights off the cat-sized rodents. The only problem is the rats are not alone, but under the control of ghoulish inhabitants. Masson flees back to the coffin from which he entered, only to find he got lost in the dark, and has gone to a different coffin! The rats close in and finish him off. The ending, claustrophobic and unrelenting as the rest of the story, seems to be the part readers remember best. Joe R Lansdale called it "a classic little booger tale" and certainly it was the inspiration for Stephen King's "Graveyard Shift" (along with Bram Stoker and HG Wells).

Now you'd expect such a pulp classic to have been adapted many times in the horror comics and you'd not be disappointed. The comics have given us four variations on Kuttner, sadly none giving the author credit.

"Rats Have Sharp Teeth" in The Vault of Horror #14 (EC Comics, August-September 1950), featuring art by Graham Ingels, has a made a number of changes. Masson is now Abner Tucker, an historian turned gravekeeper. Instead of digging from above, Tucker takes over the mansion next to the cemetery and uses tunnels to dig from below. The ghoulish ratmaster has been dropped and the ending made less gruesome, with the rats chewing away support beams and burying Tucker alive. This lack of grue is surprising for a pre-Comics Code EC Comic.

Adventures in Terror #9 (Marvel, April 1952) saw Dick Ayers draw "Ghouls Rush In." Masson has become body snatcher John Magnus. He proceeds to follow the rats who are stealing a rich corpse, but gets captured by the evil rodents. Instead of eating him, they make him one of them, and a rat-like Magnus continues his profession of robbing graves as a monster. The writer has blended his rats and ghouls into one creature.

Horrific #10 (Comic Media, March 1954) featured "Beneath the Grave," drawn by Rudy Palais. This time Masson is named Lars Swenson (Scandinavian again!) and he follows the tunnels and finds a large underground chamber where the bloated, bipedal rats are performing an evil rite around the body of a recently deceased woman. The rats see Swenson and their leader tells them to capture him. (The rats talk in this version.) The rest is pretty much as Kuttner wrote it except the ending. As Swenson finds himself trapped in the grave, the rats do not eat him. He cries, "Satan has come to collect my soul!" The master rat answers: "No? Just who do you think I am, Lars Swenson?"

"Rats" in Death Rattle v1 #3 (Kitchen Sink, 1975) was adapted and drawn by Mike Roberts in black and white. Again no credit is given to Kuttner but the adaptation is very faithful. The only change is from Masson to Mason. Roberts tells the story in rigid squares that perfectly mimic the tight feel of Kuttner's story. It was great to see the undead ghoul for a change. Death Rattle was an underground comic and there is a little gratuitous nudity, but in other regards the story is restrained and subtle, rather than in-your-face brash as many alternative press comics are.

Henry Kuttner lived until 1958. That means he could have seen three of these four comic adaptations. Whether he saw them or not, we don't know. Kuttner himself had written Green Lantern comics between 1944-1946. Despite this he never showed much interest in the comics format. It would be fascinating to know what he thought of these strange variations of his work.

Two other adaptations that I should mention are the TV movie Trilogy of Terror II (1996) by William F Nolan and Dan Curtis that twists the tale into a saga of a ruthless gold-digger (the only female version of Masson); and a very faithful radio version from the 2012 Suspense revival for Siriius XM Radio. Both of these are embedded below.



Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Kill All Monsters... in COLOR!



I don't remember if I've mentioned it before, but the next Kill All Monsters story to see print will be in color! Bill Crabtree (The 6th Gun) is a perfect fit for Jason's lines, as you can see in this sample.

It's still a bit early to give all the details yet, but this will be a one-off story that's connected to the main, bigger story of the graphic novel while taking place at a different time. We've got a new publisher, so the shorter story is intended to introduce the world of KAM to a whole new audience before we continue what we started in Ruins of Paris.

Stay tuned for more info. I'm not sure exactly when the big announcement will be made, but by my math it shouldn't be much longer. 2015 promises to be a big year for KAM.

Friday, January 30, 2015

From Russia With Love (1963) | Music



In talking about the title sequence of Dr. No, I mistakenly said that Dr. No's title designer, Maurice Binder, also designed the titles in From Russia With Love. That was actually Robert Brownjohn though. Binder did most of the Bond films up to License to Kill, but he skipped two: From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.

In a 1983 interview with Starlog, Binder said that he didn't come back for Russia because he was "having a bit of a... ruckus at the time with the producers." But his assistant Trevor Bond came back and worked with Brownjohn, so there was some continuity. And Binder also said in the interview that he actually printed the titles, so he was involved, but the designs are all Brownjohn's.

According to Steven Jay Rubin's The James Bond Films, the inspiration for the title sequence came when Brownjohn's wife walked in front of a slideshow he was projecting. He decided to shoot the Russia titles on the body of a belly dancer and created film history. The rest of the Bond credits sequences, even the ones by Binder when he came back, owe everything to From Russia With Love. (Incidentally, Brownjohn and Trevor Bond were also both cinematographers and couldn't resist a jab at the guy who got that job for Russia. They project Ted Moore's credit directly onto the dancer's shimmying butt.)

As part of the movie, the Russia titles nicely support the setting of the film. Most of the story takes place in Turkey, so the belly dancer teases that, and the music works well too. I'm not greatly familiar with Turkish music and certainly don't have the vocabulary to talk about it, but the instrumental version of the theme song that plays over the opening credits has a flowing, string-led sound that feels vaguely Eastern.

Monty Norman was the composer for Dr. No, but Saltzman and Broccoli weren't thrilled with his work there and brought in John Barry to punch up the main theme on that movie. In Russia, Barry is back and in control of most of the score. The main theme though was written by Lionel Bart who was super popular at the time thanks to his hit musical Oliver!, which gave us perennial songs like "Food, Glorious Food" and "Consider Yourself." Barry punches this song way up too for the opening credits, leading into it with an exciting musical stinger, laying down some Alan Haven jazz organ over the theme itself, and finally segueing into his own "James Bond Theme" from Dr. No.

Bart's version of the song, sung by Matt Monro (who would go on to record another classic movie theme in 1966 for Born Free), plays over the end credits and on the radio when James Bond and Sylvia Trench are making out. I like it more than most Bond fans seem to, but it is very subdued and loungey. It's easy to see why Barry and the producers wanted a more thrilling version to start the film. And there's also the fact that Bart's lyrics had nothing to do with the movie, but were a standard love song that simply incorporated the film's title. It's probably telling that Goldfinger, where Barry had complete creative control of the soundtrack, features a song that's about the movie and also (I don't think coincidentally) gets sung over the opening credits.

The James Bond Theme itself is still used pretty liberally in From Russia With Love like it was in Dr. No. It plays at all sorts of mundane times: when Bond enters or leaves buildings, for instance. It's function isn't to spice up action scenes, it's to build excitement. It reminds viewers that the guy checking into the hotel isn't just some guy, but a thrilling, romantic figure. That'll change over the course of the series and the Bond Theme will be used more sparingly and mostly over action sequences, but in From Russia With Love Barry created a different piece of music for that.



The Russia soundtrack album calls it "007 Theme" and it was apparently inspired by Elmer Bernstein's theme to The Magnificent Seven. In Russia, it's introduced during the battle at the Romani camp and it gets used in most of the Connery movies whenever there are big, actiony set pieces. The James Bond Theme was for cool, smaller moments. The 007 Theme was for the big stuff.

And when it came time to score the mushy stuff, Barry was able to adapt Lionel Bart's romantic tune into a soft arrangement with strings. We'll see more of that kind of thing as we go through the series, too. I always enjoy hearing how the film composers use the theme songs in their scores.

In ranking the theme songs, I'm giving a slight edge to From Russia With Love over Dr. No. Nothing beats the prominence of the James Bond Theme in the Dr. No theme, but it's diluted and confused by weird transitions into two other tunes (the third of which even has a clunky, false start when it tries to come in too early and then cuts out for a few more seconds before trying again). From Russia With Love, especially Barry's instrumental version, is not only a whole piece of music, but also works in the Bond Theme smoothly and naturally. If we're also ranking the Matt Monro version (and why not?) I'll put it just slightly beneath Dr. No because while I do love to sing along to it, it really doesn't have anything to do with the movie and Dr. No's theme does.

Top Ten Theme Songs

1. From Russia With Love (John Barry instrumental version)
2. Dr No
3. From Russia With Love (Matt Monro vocal version)
4. TBD
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

For the title sequences, I'm letting Dr. No keep the top spot. From Russia With Love's titles may be trend-setting for the series, but they're also uneven in how well they integrate the dancer with the words. Sometimes the words are cleverly projected onto parts of her body, but other times she's just waving her hands over them. Plus, I just love the flashing dots and dancing silhouettes in Dr. No.

Top Ten Title Sequences

1. Dr No
2. From Russia With Love
3. TBD
4. TBD
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Thursday, January 29, 2015

From Russia With Love (1963) | Villains



It's tough to tell where the main villains end and where the henchmen begin in From Russia With Love. In the novel, it's all a SMERSH caper with Rosa Klebb as the chief organizer, but changing it to a SPECTRE op for the film means that she has to take a back seat to Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He's clearly the main villain, but does that make Klebb a henchman or just a secondary boss?

I love the slow build on Blofeld as a character through the early movies. He's not mentioned in Dr. No, just his organization. Then we meet him in From Russia With Love, but we never see his face. He's just stroking that white cat and sounding deliciously evil as he terrifies his underlings and talks about Siamese fighting fish. (I tried and failed to learn the origins of the white cat as Blofeld's pet. No idea who came up with that, but it's a lovely touch to portray the ruthless crime lord as a man who dotes on a fluffy kitty.) The actor in the chair by the way is Anthony Dawson (Professor Dent from Dr. No), but his voice was dubbed by Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann, perhaps best known for small parts in a couple of the Pink Panther movies.



So is Klebb a henchman or villain? For listing purposes below, I'm going to call her a villain even though she's clearly not calling the shots. She's simply implementing someone else's plan, but she's the primary face of SPECTRE's leadership throughout the mission, so I can't make myself just stick her down with the henchmen.

One of the things I like doing with the bad guys is figuring out where they go wrong. Doctor No and his henchmen were just generally dumb and ineffective (though points go to Bond for actually having to use some wits and skill a couple of times). Klebb's fatal flaw is not properly vetting her people. Kronsteen says that his plan went wrong when Klebb chose Grant as Bond's assassin, and he has a point. She could have investigated Grant better and possibly uncovered his fatal flaw, even though on paper he was totally the right guy.

And Klebb goes wrong again when she takes on the job of assassinating Bond herself, and then just assumes that Tania's still loyal to the Soviets. In her interview with Klebb, Tania revealed herself to be thoughtful and sensitive, not reflexively patriotic. Like Grant, Tania's service record probably looked great on paper, but the signs were all there that she could turn into a wild card and Klebb ignored them.



I'm going to call Kronsteen a villain too. Even though he doesn't have as much to do as Klebb, it's his plan that sets the plot in motion. Contrary to Klebb's claims about him, Kronsteen's fatal weakness isn't his plan. It totally should have worked, but Grant screwed it up. He's right to throw that back on those who selected Grant for the job.

Where Kronsteen goes wrong is his arrogance. When asked to defend his plan, he could with ease, but doesn't think it's necessary. Instead, he simply remarks, "Who is Bond compared with Kronsteen?" That's a bunk answer and it lets Klebb off the hook. The competition wasn't between Bond and Kronsteen, it was between Bond and Grant. Kronsteen stupidly lets Klebb change the parameters of the argument and pays for it with his life.



Grant is a henchman through and through and it's going to be tough - if not impossible - to knock him out of the Top 10. He's a strong, resilient, sly monster who wisely skulks his way through the plot until it's time to strike. He almost pulls the whole thing off.

But he's a thug. He's a great assassin, but a lousy spy and it's simple greed that lets Bond get the jump on him. Not to take anything away from Bond in that wonderfully brutal train fight. Grant makes Bond work hard for the victory and it could convincingly have gone either way. But if Grant hadn't wanted those gold coins, there wouldn't have even been a fight for him to lose. That's where SPECTRE's whole scheme falls apart.



Another clear henchman is Morzeny, the head of the SPECTRE Island training facility. He feels too high-ranking for henchman status, but as the movie plays out he really is just a hit man. He's the one who kills Kronsteen with a poisoned shoe-knife and he ends up dying when he leads a flotilla of motorboats after Bond. For years, I didn't realize that it was Morzeny on the megaphone in the lead speedboat and tried to work out my head-canon so that Morzeny eventually changed his name, removed his scar, and became the head of the KGB. But no, he's dead.

If Morzeny contributed to the failure of SPECTRE's plan, it's in recommending Grant to Klebb, but I agree with Kronsteen that she should have looked into Grant more than just seeing if he could take a punch in the abs. That was ultimately her responsibility.

But as an instrument of Blofeld's discipline, Morzeny does remind me to circle back and talk about Blofeld's fatal flaw in From Russia With Love. He kills the wrong dude. Even though Kronsteen was dumb to give up the argument because he thought it was beneath him, Blofeld should have seen what was going on. Blofeld himself must have signed off on the plan and realized its value, so he must also have realized that Grant was where it went wrong. Regardless of why Grant failed, selecting him was Klebb's job and if Blofeld just really needed to kill off a major leader in his organization, Klebb would have been the right choice. Instead, Blofeld discards a major - if annoying - asset.

Again, not to take anything away from Bond. SPECTRE's plan is a good one and except for one moment of weakness, Grant is excellent at pulling it off. It takes everything Bond has to get out alive and with the Lektor, which is one of the biggest reasons From Russia With Love is such a great film.

Top Ten Villains

1. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (From Russia With Love)
2. Doctor No (Dr. No)
3. Rosa Klebb (From Russia With Love)
4. Kronsteen (From Russia With Love)
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Top Ten Henchmen

1. Grant (From Russia With Love)
2. Miss Taro (Dr. No)
3. Professor Dent (Dr. No)
4. Morzeny (From Russia With Love)
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

From Russia With Love (1963) | Women



I didn't care much for Sylvia Trench in Dr. No, but she really grows on me in From Russia With Love. I still don't think that Bond's having a recurring girlfriend in London was an indefinitely sustainable idea, even if Eunice Gayson hadn't been dropped when her pal Terence Young was replaced as director on Goldfinger.

I'm sure she could've lasted a while longer and held my interest, but it's probably for the best that she didn't. I love that there's no commitment between her and Bond and she seems perfectly okay with that. She's his equal that way, which is pretty cool. But to give her an actual story would almost certainly involve having her want more from Bond, which would only end badly and take away what I like about her. So it's good that she just suddenly disappears after Russia and I can imagine that either she ended things with Bond or that it was a mutual break-up.



The only other significant woman in From Russia With Love is Tatiana Romanova, played by Italian beauty queen Daniela Bianchi. Her voice may have been entirely dubbed for the film, but Bianchi's utterly charming in the role and has an easy rapport with Sean Connery. Except for a disturbing part where he smacks her because he thinks she's working against him, their relationship is relaxed and playful. She's smart, funny, and a vast improvement on the bland character in Fleming's novel.

It's difficult to tell at what point she falls in love with Bond and that's a good thing, because it adds some mystery to her. She professes her love for him on the train, but that's as he's getting violent with her and I like to think that's her survival instinct at work. At some point she does ally herself with him though and she's certainly turned by Venice. She saves his life there by knocking a gun out of Klebb's hand, even though the movie tries to milk just a teensy bit more suspense out of the situation by having her pick up the gun and waver her aim between Bond and Klebb. That's dumb and Bianchi isn't at all convincing at it, but it's the only thing she does that I don't like.

My Favorite Bond Women

1. Tatiana Romanova (From Russia With Love)
2. Honey Rider (Dr. No)
3. Sylvia Trench (Dr. No and From Russia With Love)
4. The Photographer (Dr No)
5. Miss Taro (Dr. No)
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

A Bike on the Moon: The Science Fiction of Mickey Spillane [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

There was one job in comics that was lower than the guy who cleaned the ink pens. That poor fool was the one who had the job of writing the two-page text feature that comics offered up until recent times. This story was included not because the editors thought comics needed text stories or because readers clamored for them. The reason these short pieces were included was strictly economic. In fact, we can thank the US Post Office for them. Back in the old days, publishers could mail out their Pulps at the 4th class rate. Publications that were not text based had to pay the severe 1st class rates. Comics, having come from the Pulps, walked the middle ground and included those little stories (usually 2 pages) to be included in the 4th class category. I can remember as a kid in the 1970s ignoring those two pages of boring text. I wanted artwork, color and... comics!

Whether you read them or ignored them, somebody had to write them. Most often they were slapped together by a junior editor, but in some cases more interesting people were hired to type away those 500-word masterpieces that nobody read. Comics that were created by Pulp chains were known to grab a veteran author from the bullpen occasionally, such as Donald Wayne Hobart or Jim Kjelgaard, but the biggest coup perhaps was when Marvel (then called Timely Comics) and Novelty Press shared for a year the work of mystery superstar, Mickey Spillane. (Mickey would start the Mike Hammer private eye series in 1947 with I, The Jury. This novel alone sold six and half million copies in the US. He was the superstar of the late noir period. His hard-boiled style would be encapsulated in the joke about the PI who beats confessions out of crooks: "Let me Spillane it to you.")

But before stardom, Spillane began in the comics. In 1940 he met Joe Gill (who would be a force at Charlton Comics) who hooked him up with his brother Ray Gill at Funnies Inc, a packager for the comics. In the early days of comic books, companies did not produce their own strips, but bought them from different outfits. Writing for these suppliers, Spillane worked on Golden Age comics such as Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel. Unlike today, this was a low-paying, almost anonymous job. The only thing lower, was that guy writing the two page filler. After Pearl Harbor, Mickey enlisted, but continued to write the short two-pagers in 1941-42.

Most of Spillane's tales fall into two categories. The first are war stories such as "Fresh Meat For a Raider" (Sub-Mariner Comics #4, Winter 1941). An Anti-Nazi tale, it features a brave, American crew fooling a German U-Boat and destroying it. Typical of wartime comics, the Americans are always victorious, courageous, and lantern-jawed, while the enemy is cunning, but evil. These stories are the least interesting in terms of Spillane's later career, but they do serve as an historical look at a time when comics did their share to defeat Hitler.

More interesting are the mystery and suspense stories like "No Prisoners" (Target Comics V3 #4, June 1942) in which a cop, acting more like a private eye, single-handedly tracks down a gang of criminals and kills them all in a shoot-out. This is the Spillane we all expect to find in these short pieces. The style is tough, terse, and action-packed. All I could think of throughout the story was, "Why doesn't he call for back-up?" But occasionally, amongst the cops and newspaper reporters, the soldiers and tough guys, you find an odd little story like "The Man In the Moon" (All-Winners Comics #5, Summer 1942 with its cover featuring Namor and Captain America defeating a Nazi sub). Science Fiction! Mickey Spillane writing Sci-Fi!

Mickey spins the tale of Bruce Henderson, a frustrated inventor. He has created a rocketship in the Brazilian jungles because everyone laughs at his idea of going to the moon. Defying humanity, he flies off alone to see the Earth grow small, as bits of space dirt rasp along the hull. He sees a comet fly by and asteroids, before landing on the moon with a bump and then a long slide. At last, he walks on the moon, experiencing its lesser gravity. Henderson has prepared a space suit of sorts that supplies heat and air, but finds a pair of shorts handy as well for walking on the moon's sunny side. He has also brought a shovel, which he uses for weeks as he digs a mysterious trench in the lunar surface.

Finished with this project he produces a bicycle that he rides to the moon's mysterious dark side. He now wears the full spacesuit to endure the cold. In the darkness he thinks he sees an asteroid hit the surface of the moon, but it is actually another ship! He encounters another form of life, not a lunarian, but another visitor from space. This ugly alien is ten feet tall, with eight arms and large saucer-sized eyes. Bruce is armed with a rifle, but the creature dies from the impact, melting to a jelly and disappearing.

Henderson has had enough of the moon. He fires up the rocket and flies back to earth. Upon his return he tells the papers of his adventures, but is branded a liar. He isn't worried though. A new telescope in California vindicates him, for written upon the surface of the moon, dug in three long trenches, are the letters USA. Henderson has claimed the moon in the name of his country.

Spillane's science is terrible, but let's remember that this is 1942 and a visit to the moon was still considered "that silly Buck Rogers stuff" by most people. I would think that Mickey was familiar with some Pulp SF and comics, perhaps the early Astounding with its bug-eyed monsters or Fiction House's Planet Comics. The sting at the end of Spillane's tale, the man writing USA on the surface of the moon was used again by a much more respected author, Arthur C Clarke in "Watch This Space" (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1957). In Clarke's tale, it isn't a ditch cut into the lunar surface, but a cloud of gas in space. The idea is the same though, if more plausible. Clarke, being more cynical - or perhaps less patriotic - has the gas spell out a brand name of a soft drink instead of a country.

The two-page fiction of Mickey Spillane was collected in 2003 in a book called Primal Spillane: Early Stories 1941-42 (Gryphon Press), edited by Max Allan Collins and Lynn F Myers Jr. This out-of-print book is hard to find, so I recommend you check out many of the original Spillane stories at Digital Comic Museum or Comic Book Plus.

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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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