Monthly Archives: May 2013

Pacific Rim

Pacific-Rim-poster-BIGBoys ‘n’ their Toys

‘Today we are cancelling the Apocalypse!’

Forget the leery, soulless and derivative direction of Michael Bay – when you have Guillermo Del Toro at the helm of the ultimate smashup, even a prepubescent wet dream has both the potential to entertain while at the same time give epic weight to a B-movie homage. It would be easy to say that Del Toro’s latest foray in to the mainstream looks like Godzillas vs. Transformers…yet, in all fairness neither Emmerich or Bay have ever had the versatility and poetic nature to craft any film that resembles Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone. Del Toro’s love letter is firmly planted on his sleeve – this is East meets West – an anime / B-movie mashup that harkens back to the heyday of the monsters, aliens and robots of the 50s. With a true auteur in control of his craft, you are more than guaranteed a practical approach to film making and a unique vision that delivers unforgettable experiences. Hopefully, based on the latest trailer, this summer’s Pacific Rim will deliver classic blockbuster entertainment that will give birth to a new franchise. Forget the return to Star Wars – this could be the next, BIG thing. How do you knock out a ten story monster? With a ten story robot swinging (what looks like) an oil tanker! No doubt this will be loud and painful for us all…

If you have never seen the likes of Keith Thompson’s breathtaking and beautifully disturbing aesthetic before, make sure you visit his official site which should give you more than a taste of the potential scope and nightmarish splendour of his designs before the film hits, July 12th.

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Classic Albums: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

2858_81179906652_3313709_nGabriel’s Swan Song

‘Early morning Manhattan,
Ocean winds blow on the land…’

Out of all the albums I have bought over the years, the one album that has had the most profound influence was Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Its surreal nature and potent use of imagery, embedded within its high use of concept, marked a significant turning step for me – enhancing dreams and lending further vibrancy in those waking moments that began to feel more and more like a return…or perhaps a reminder of the rabbit hole Lewis carol had left behind.

Up until fifteen years of age I was too busy climbing trees and sword fighting in the cornfields to sit still for one second and appreciate music. Even in those quiet moments alone I’d draw but it was mainly informed by the films and comics I read. My father is not a musical person and what my mother subjected me to was mainly pop music of the time, which of course is the easier option.

I’d finished my GCSES (a landmark in any teenager’s life) and having collected my grades, of which were distinctly average, I went to a friend’s house for tea where he introduced me to the albums, Wind & Wuthering and Dark Side of the Moon. I was blown away by the progressive sound, the concepts and the complexity in the arrangements. I was quite literally ‘transported’. They were stories and stories were all that mattered to me. I hadn’t realised till that point that music could be so much more than pop, which (dare I say) I’d had a brief flirtation with Miss Dennis and Minogue.

From Wind & Wuthering I was astonished to find out that the man from the oddly entertaining song, Sledgehammer was none other than Peter Gabriel – the original frontman before Phil Collins directed the band towards the more uplifting love songs he has become synonymous with. Gabriel was the storyteller – the conceptualist whose aforementioned single during the 1980s was more than an evolution of his days with Genesis – the outlandish Brothers Quay only emphasising Gabriel’s kaleidoscopic mind. To me, he was concept personified and it was here that I became obsessed with the visuals of his lyrics and the stunning sounds Foxtrot’s ‘Supper’s Ready’ (a 23 minute masterpiece) and eventually the classic album, Selling England by the Pound. I bought the original records and religiously listened to every Genesis album where I proceeded to focus entirely on the Gabriel era.

With The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway the concept album had kicked in to full gear. In retrospect there were traces of David Bowie’s definitive Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, The Who’s Tommy and Alan Parsons, but Genesis clearly had their own sound. Their own approach to the depths of the conceptual album had reached full complexity through the eyes of a split personality manifesting itself as the central character Rael (Real) – a graffiti artist on the streets, pulled into a parallel universe of mirror images and haunted by carpet crawlers and supernatural anaesthetists.

It was a magical ride in which I witnessed in full animated detail. I imagined William Friedkin’s interpretation after I had read of his talks to adapt the album in to a film, but unfortunately this fell through once Gabriel split from the band shortly after the release and tour in 1975.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is one of those rare albums that constantly evolves – you never tire of revisiting the strange world and sounds that inhabit every cave a dark, wet dream. This, in my opinion, is the greatest concept album of the 70s. As much as I adore The WallDark Side of the MoonTales of Mystery & Imagination, 2112 and Tommy – it was The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway that found me first. Read in to this album as much as you like – there is much to learn from it about ourselves.

*One tip: Avoid being seduced by beautiful women, it leads to bursting out in an unpleasant skin disease, losing your ‘number’ and a super sized black bird flying off with your prized possession contained in a glass tube.

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In order to rescue others, do we not often rescue ourselves…?

In the Rapids

He dives down into the cold water. At first he is thrown onto the rocks, and pulled under the water by a fast moving channel, which takes him right past John, down river.

Moving down the water
John is drifting out of sight,
Its only at the turning point
That you find out how you fight.

In the cold, feel the cold
all around
And the rush of crashing water
Surrounds me with its sound.

Rael manages to grab a rock, pull himself to the surface and catch his breath. As John is carried past, Rael throws himself in again and catches hold of his arm. He knocks John unconscious and then locking themselves together, he rides the rapids into the slow running water, where he can swim to safety.

Striking out to reach you
I can’t get through to the other side,
When you’re racing in the rapids
There’s only one way, thats to ride.

Taken down, taken down
by the undertow
I’m spiralled down the river bed,
My fire is burning low.
Catching hold of a rock that’s firm,
I’m waiting for John to be carried past.
We hold together, hold together and shoot the rapids fast.

But as he hauls his brother’s limp body onto the bank he lies him out and looks hopefully into his eyes for a sign of life. He staggers back in recoil, for staring at him with eyes wide open is not John’s face – but his own.

And when the waters slow down
The dark and the deep
have no-one, no-one, no-one, no-one
no-one left to keep.
Hang on John! We’re out of this at last.
Somethings changed, that’s not your face.
It’s mine – it’s mine!

It

Rael cannot look away from those eyes, mesmerized by his own image. In a quick movement, his consciousness darts from one face to the other, then back again, until his presence is no longer solidly contained in one or the other. In this fluid state he observes both bodies outlined in yellow and the surrounding scenery melting into a purple haze. With a sudden rush of energy up both spinal columns, their bodies, as well, finally dissolve into the haze.

All this takes place without a single sunset, without a single bell ringing and without a single blossom falling from the sky. Yet it fills everything with its mysterious intoxicating presence. It’s over to you.

When its cold, it come slow
it is warm, just watch it grow
– all around me
it is here. it is now.

Just a little bit of it can bring you up or down.
Like the supper it is cooking in your hometown.
it is chicken, it is eggs,
it is in between your legs.
it is walking on the moon,
leaving your cocoon.

it is the jigsaw. it is purple haze.
it never stays in one place, but it’s not a passing phase,
it is in the singles bar, in the distance of the face
it is in between the cages, it is always in a space
it is here. it is now.

Any rock can be made to roll
If you’ve enough of it to pay the toll
it has no home in words or goal
Not even in your favourite hole
it is the hope for the dope
Who rides the horse without a hoof
it is shaken not stirred;
Cocktails on the roof.

When you eat right through it you see everything alive
it is inside spirit, with enough grit to survive
If you think that its pretentious, you’ve been taken for a ride.
Look across the mirror sonny, before you choose decide
it is here. it is now
it is Real. it is Rael

‘cos it’s only knock and knowall, but I like it…

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Classic Scenes: Apocalypse Now

brando-apocolypseThe Horror…

‘You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.’ Colonel Kurtz

There are few scenes in cinema history that place you inside the mind of insanity. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece forces you to understand the reasoning behind such atrocities that may lead to one man’s self destruction. Aside from Brando’s outstanding performance – this is a scene that chills you to the very core of the human condition.

The build up has been over 3 hours. Willard the assassin has travelled for weeks up the Viet Cong river to take out the insane, General Kurtz. In finally meeting the man and witnessing first hand what he is capable of, he confronts him in the shadows…and, before he takes him out, listens to what he has to say.

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Cowboy Bebop

dvd1largeSpace Blues

‘The work, which becomes a genre itself, will be called… COWBOY BEBOP.’

Welcome to the 21st century. Mankind has now reached up towards the stars and developed an interplanetary society. Here are the lawless and dangerous worlds of our Solar system, a new breed of ‘cowboy’ bounty hunters pursuing the outlaws and crime families who strive to make a dishonest buck.

The motley crew of the spaceship Bebop are all cowboys of some description – Spike Spiegel, a dangerous, idiosyncratic man with a hidden past and charm to boot; Jet Black, the pragmatic ex-police officer turned bounty hunter; Faye Valentine, a beatutiful, quirky female on the run; Ed, the hyperactive, technical wiz-kid; and Ein, the Welsh Corgi with a smart I.Q. All are ready for crime-fighting adventures and collecting a bounty to fill their aching belly…even if they don’t always achieve it. Lethal and funny, cool and romantic – the space cowboys of the Bebop take on all kinds of scum to prevent those stomachs from rumbling.

Once in a blue moon there comes an animated series that stands head and shoulders above the rest, a series that encompasses every area of quality production, which, in my opinion, rivals and even betters most live action films and television series out their today. Perfection is a rare thing within any medium and Cowboy Bebop, much like Batman: The Animated Series, are certainly a prime example. They are the best of their breed; faultless in their execution and treated with such panache and flawless detail – where BTAS is, for me, the strongest adaptation of the Dark Knight and greatest Western animated series to date, Bebop is certainly the greatest example from the East. Anime has a style that stands on its own, even within the medium of animation; a unique look that separates the Eastern influences and styles from the West, yet Bebop is so postmodern in terms of its structure, there is no connection to its routes other than its distinctive character design, typical of anime.
Without making further comparisons, both series utilise a postmodern mix all style and flavour, however, where BTAS is tied to the DC universe, Bebop has no restrictions within the worlds it inhabits. This is the grander canvas that Blade Runner eluded to where there is an entire universe to explore. With subtle references to the aforementioned film, that pay more of a homage than connecting the two directly. This is the universe you imagine when Roy Batty gives his moving speech where we can see the things we wouldn’t have believed – ‘C-Beams glittering…’ and the journey from one world to another.

But amongst the geek references and sci-fi tropes, Bebop more than stands on its own. This is a series that has everything and, like most postmodernist science fiction, throws everything in the blender while still retaining a consistency in its vision. The music – five albums worth composed by Yoko Kanno – moves you as much as the animation and superb storytelling that delivers original characters who inhabit a surprisingly downbeat world. Lead creative and Director, Shinichiro Watanabe set out to produce an animated series that would also appeal to adults, where it would explore philosophical and existential themes throughout that would deliver a layer of sophistication most associated with film noir, yet maintained the clean approach of the classic Western genre. There is no doubt when watching the series that both Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica have been more than influenced by its dynamics and believable universe. There have been many solid anime series over the years, but nothing with the scope and magnitude of Cowboy Bebop. It delivers John Woo / Tarantinoesque action sequences that give it a 90s edge – there is bad language and brief nudity, but none of it gratuitous. They simply support the story – one of which is aimed at those who appreciate a good film and artistic flare accompanied by knockout camera tricks and eclectic music – jazz, blues, opera, rock, hip-hop, you name it…it’s all thrown in there for good measure.

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(Left to Right) Faye Valentine, Jet Black, Spike Spiegel, Ed and Welsh Corgi, Ein.

Originally only 12 episodes of the series were broadcast in Japan. Only after this was the entire series shown uncut on their satellite channels. There is a distinct style that is reminiscent of the pulp Sixties shows, with its stylistic intro and jazz music that help make the series one of the most human and involving dramas you will ever see. Although it is set against a futuristic backdrop, you almost forget you are on another planet, due to the sophisticated storylines and subtle environmental designs – each planet closely resembling a different city and its society, instead of out-of-this-world concepts. There are no aliens, no robots – which helps keep the universe more grounded, despite man having visited all the surrounding planets in our solar system via the highways of space. Rest assured, this future is very close. Plot construction and characters are highly developed and showcase surprising depth, which can be rare in anime and the voice talents, both in the original Japanese and, surprisingly, in the dubbing, are solid throughout.

Every episode is a mini movie in itself, yet an overarching story runs throughout that races to its dramatic conclusion. After the series’ success, the Cowboy Bebop movie, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door followed in 2001 along with the Perfect Sessions DVD box set and Collectors Edition Blu-ray released in July. As with the best in film, Bebop has universal appeal that helps to define personal tastes while at the same time transcending cultures. This is an anime which will continued to be remembered amongst those so easily forgotten – this is a true masterpiece that has more than helped to define a genre with supreme confidence.

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Captain Phillips

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A reminder that Pirates still exist

‘They’re not here to fish…’

Tom Hanks stars in Paul Greengrass’ latest film based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, where, in 2009 his ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates marking it as the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years. With a gruelling role similar to his performance in Castaway, Hanks’ title role is at the heart of the story as he gives himself up as hostage in his best efforts to keep his crew safe. The trailer showcases Greengrass’ usual flair for intense realism that could be one to watch out for when it is released on 11th October.

75 Years of Superman – Part VI

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DC comics’ 9-11: Artists Respond Volume 1, 2011 published as a tribute to the real superheroes.

Choices

‘Superman comics are a fable, not of strength, but of disintegration. They appeal to the preadolescent mind not because they reiterate grandiose delusions, but because they reiterate a very deep cry for help.’ David Mamet

The notions of ‘truth and justice’ were questioned more than ever on September 11th, 2001 when the concept of heroes and heroism was stunningly redefined. No longer would home runs and goal scores be thrown around so loosely when defining what it actually means to be a hero – this was about true sacrifice where a real sense of purpose had to be outlined. A Fireman is a Hero…a Policeman, the everyday man working in the wreckage of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. With the reality of the ‘ordinary hero’ – the most staple and often the most reluctant – the drama and subsequent conflict that had erupted from post 9/11 had demonstrated what would follow if a nation was threatened on home soil and what people were willing to do in their response. All of a sudden, the reality of who Superman was bore little relevance. Coincidently, in the Adventures of Superman #596, published on September 12th, 2011, the Lex Corps own Twin Towers are seen partially destroyed by an alien invasion – the issue’s cover showcasing a black background to the iconic emblem and stating, ‘This is Not a Job for Superman’. As the story was written several months previously, the images only fed into the surrounding conspiracy of 9/11. In their respects to the fallen, the big two publishers released their own anthologies to honour the real heroes of the disaster.

In certain positions, men and women put their lives on the line and bare witness to horrific events they must deal with each and every day without super-strength, X-ray vision, the ability to fly and above all else no invulnerability to bullets. These people form an imperative part of society and in truth reveal a far greater virtue than any fictitious hero. Superman is merely a superhero, yet, in the importance of reality and keeping our thoughts placed firmly on the ground, he is can only, to most, be a character who has captured the public’s imagination and become a strong and potent icon. But, despite his fictitious nature he has been there be to imprint on younger minds often as much as religious archetypes and in some instances become a replacement or metaphor for those same stories. It has often been the child in all of us whose imagination has been captured by such characters and helped us strive to do good, whether considered myth, legend, religion…or one in the same – a good story with a strong, central figure serves an even greater purpose.

There is no doubt that in a world without Superman, humanity would survive. In his own universe, The Death of Superman and subsequent World without Superman tales have reflected how those he has left behind have dealt with taking on the responsibilities and legacy he has left behind, until his eventual return or reboot. However, in our efforts to view beyond our own world as a source of inspiration, there is a prior need to motivate and inspire. Where some see him as a voice of reason and respect, others appose what he stands for due to his all-powerful nature. His patriotic background can also be perceived as something that does not always ring true to other nations and presents an argument in how truly universal he is as a character. Not only is he alienated by the mere definition of the word but also in what he represents to his country of origin – an archetype born out of a reaction and escape from harsh times, ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’,…yet, to be reinvented when another depression chokes the world. In despondent times, where humanity is beginning to lose faith in what primarily keeps the world turning, the idea of a Superman – Man of Steel…a Man of Tomorrow, seems to be the most optimistic representation of what we should all aspire to be.

We are often defined by the choices we make in life and the dilemmas we may face. Superman seems impervious and invulnerable to most forces but he is still unable to be in two places at once, which often presents the challenge of who he should save when his enemies present such a difficult decision. Choices are simply another form of kryptonite that often result in dire consequences when he is either forced to choose saving the life of one closest to him over the lives of many. These choices are what defines the ‘man’ and results in a redundant use of the word ‘super’.

His vulnerability is what makes him more human than most – his heart often torn between his fears and responsibilities. From a psychological point of view, it is fear that can define most people as it teaches us the value of our own mortality and helps us to question our own belief system.

‘Far from being invulnerable, Superman is the most vulnerable of beings, because his childhood was destroyed. He can never reintegrate himself by returning to that home- it is gone. It is gone and he is living among aliens to whom he cannot even reveal his rightful name.’ David Mamet

Superman is about being the most virtuous man on Earth and more than ever, in today’s world, people need to know that good still exists out there. Any fear of rejection and a belonging in the world – the same fears that most of us may have – makes Kal-El all the more human and therefore not quite so perfect as one would first think. This is his trues weakness…and, in understanding this, is the key to telling an effective Superman story. Whether he exists or not, in fact or fiction, an archetypal figure as prominent in popular culture as Superman will go on to inspire for centuries to come. He is our legacy of the modern era in the same way all the great stories have left their mark throughout history and will go on to be embedded in a far grander mythology for centuries to come.

Introduction

Part I: First of His Kind

Part II: Power and Invention

Part III: Truth, Justice and the American Way

Part IV: On Screen

Part V: Origin(al) Tales

Part VI: Choices

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75 Years of Superman – Part V

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John Byrne’s Man of Steel, 1986.

Origin(al) Tales

‘Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am.’ The Man of Steel, John Byrne, 1986

Delving in to the influences and the DNA of such characters helps to understand what has shaped and refined them. In much the same way as an individual is shaped by their own surroundings and those who imprint on them – we are all as much a result of our circumstances and the environment we are brought up in as the collective knowledge that is passed down to us. It is no different for fictitious characters – this is how they have managed to survive and continue to capture the imagination – a result of both their own inheritance and archetypal nature that has allowed them to relate to their audience. Superman has moved with the times, perhaps not as crucially as his contemporaries, yet, when the time has felt right, his origin has been retold.

In fact, when revisiting the great Superman stories those that often stand out the most are the origin tales. After the publication of Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? that ended an era for Superman before his modern reboot in the 1980s during Crisis on Infinite Earths, John Byrne, as both writer and artist, set out to retell a modern origin. In Man of Steel (1986), Superman had acquired such a firm stance in the public’s own consciousness that the iconography was enough to allow for the marketing of another pseudonym and is arguably the most successful incarnation to date, arriving at a defining time in the history of comics alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Where Miller and Byrne redefined the two major linchpins of the superhero genre, Moore redefined the idea of the superhero and in doing so gave birth to the modern age of comics. It took British cynicism to see what made superheroes tick – a real world sensibility that not only delved in to the minds of archetypes but also performed the entire lobotomy. Miller’s Batman was a dark, brooding and brutal force of nature who, in The Dark Knight Returns, had not been seen for a decade – an ‘out of touch’ version of Batman… yet, a Batman who was perhaps more in tune with his roots than ever before. And amongst the darkness and intense storytelling, Superman’s light still burned bright in an effort to make himself heard. This was the antithesis of Miller’s incarnation, where Superman is shown as no more than a government stooge carrying out orders from the White House to bring down his old friend.

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Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdon Come, 1996.

Mark Waid’s collaboration with the artist Alex Ross resulted in their Elseworlds imprint title, Kingdom Come (1996) – a lavishly illustrated four part prestige format that harkened back to the work of Norman Rockwell. Told from the point of view of a Minister, the Spectre reveals the repercussions of warring superheroes as they contribute to the encroaching apocalypse. Asked to pass judgment on the superheroes, the Minister is witness to the return of a Superman who had abandoned his cause – one of many reflections of a world without a Superman during these times. On his return, Kal-El reforms the Justice League in his efforts to counterstrike and imprison those superheroes who have grown out of control.

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Jeph Loeb and Time Sale’s For all Seasons, 1998.

After their success with Batman on The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale went on to tell a story that was a parallel to Byrne’s Man of Steel. For All Seasons (1998) concentrated primarily on the character of Superman – no galactic punch-ups and no full-scale invasion – this was simply a tale told from the perspectives of those who were closest to Clark Kent. Not only did this ground the character but reinforce the humble nature of Superman – a contradiction to how he may be perceived by the world. When we finally reach Lex Luthor’s perspective, a twisted love story of insecurity; where a man of intelligence is often a man who thinks too much…it ultimately leads to a breakdown of the soul and thirst for power. Where The Long Halloween was built around the use of holidays as a structure, Loeb and Sale’s tale dealt with seasons that gave further stability to a more personal rendition of the character.

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Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s Birthright, 2003.

Although Kingdom Come was a critical success, Mark Waid’s own origin tale was to follow almost a decade later, post 9/11 and in light of a world who no longer needed fantasy heroes. Now there was a need for realism and as an extension on Man of Steel and For all Seasons, Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s, Birthright (2003-2004) explored the journey of Clark Kent as an activist and journalist, much like Bruce Wayne’s own pilgrimage to hone his skills as a crime fighter. Clark Kent would connect with humanity face to face and understand the issues at stake on a global level, while more importantly setting an example to billions. If the world could not be Superman, then he could only aspire to help the people of the world to do their best. Symbolism was key in setting up the character where the reasons he chooses to wear the costume are built layer by layer. The questions we have always asked, such as how no one recognises Superman under Kent’s glasses is beautifully handled and justified before delivering some of the best action sequences illustrated in comics. All the while the ‘S’ symbol is embedded fully within the world building arc helping to present both a clarity to how it is perceived through his own ‘birthright’ and society’s interpretation and their assumption of what it stands for – nothing more than their own label.

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Mark Millar’s Red Son, 2003.

As a counterpoint to Waid’s origin, Mark Millar set out to deliver the ultimate Elseworld’s tale – a unique, origin with an imposing twist that sees the infant, Kal-El land in the Ukraine, rather than America. In Superman: Red Son (2003), the mythology of Superman is reimagined under the iron will of the Soviet Union where a Russian Man of Steel rises to power within a communist state where few are able to oppose him. Despite his social circumstances, the spirit of Superman’s is left, surprisingly intact and in spite of the system he’s working in, he attempts at all times to do the right thing. Whilst the outcome of much of what Superman does is questionable, his intentions are sincere. Despite his use as a weapon, he is still the hero of the nation he was brought up in and thoroughly believes in socialism in his attempt to make it work against the last surviving state of capitalism, America. This is not an evil interpretation of Superman…for that would have been too easy a path to take and therefore allows for the character to retain some sympathy.

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Geoff Johns and Garry Frank’s Superman imbued with the spirit of Christopher Reeve.

Where Birthright set to build an origin for the 21st Century, Red Son smashed all preconceptions of how such an iconic character could be personified. Where one begged to question, ‘What if?’ the other would only remain canon for a limited time before Geoff Johns’ and Garry Frank’s Secret Origin was released in 2010. Post Infinite Crisis, and to tie in with continuity, the mini series was delivered alongside their run on Action Comics which delivered a number of tales, highly regarded as ‘definitive Superman’. It is no coincidence that Frank’s rendition is more than a homage to the late Christopher Reeve, influenced further through Johns’ own background and knowledge where his initial stories evolved from his collaboration with the original Director of Superman: The Movie, Richard Donner in their attempts to redefine the character. In fact, Johns worked for Donner as his intern gaining experience in the film industry while still maintaining his obsession for comic books, which has more than helped in his position as Chief Creative Officer at DC where he has gone on to redefine Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Justice League.

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Steven T, Seagle’s and Teddy Kristiansen’s It’s a Bird, 2004.

It could be said, much like in Steven T. Seagle’s (no relation) and Teddy Kristiansen’s, It’s a Bird (2004), that Superman is the most difficult character to write. Through Seagle’s semi-autobiographical accounts, he not only explores what the icon means to the world and his effects on society but, from his own perspective, delves in to the more than overwhelming and all consuming task of writing a seemingly indestructible character. With a God-like figure there is little conflict that can be found and once an enemy is presented they must challenge and form the required conflict, otherwise there is often nothing left but to duke it out on a galactic scale before it becomes predictable and derivative. In the magnitude of these set pieces, this is where the soul of Superman can be lost. This is where It’s a Bird manages to successfully explore our own mortality through the writer’s eyes; while at the same time dissects the Man of Steel’s mythic importance and in doing so presents both an honest account of the writer’s efforts to do the character justice while at the same time questioning how much a ‘Superman’ means during the modern era.

With the launch of the New 52 in 2011, Grant Morrison and Rags Morales were handed the reins to, yet again, reinvent Superman to fit with a rebooted continuity in the New 52 Action Comics #1. As superheroes are seen with some hostility, Superman’s ‘Year Zero’ begins with a younger incarnation wearing nothing more than jeans, cape and t-shirt in an effort to gain the public’s trust, while at the same time reflecting a more rebellious attitude. Making a name for himself as a champion of the oppressed in Metropolis, he captures the attention of both the military and scientist, Lex Luthor, who are both interested in testing his capabilities as well as discovering what kind of threat he represents. With nods to the original, Reign of the Superman, it is no surprise that Morrison’s depth of storytelling eludes to the importance of his original inception and the iconography that has helped build such an important comic book character. Morrison is a man who submerses himself in the medium on many levels through personal experience and a full understanding of who the ‘man’ is – that portion of the character that is hidden amongst the actions of his ‘super’ powers.

SUPERMAN: ‘I can only tell you what I believe, Diana – humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.’

FLASH: ‘But that’s what she’s saying. What’s the point? Why should they need us at all?

SUPERMAN: ‘To catch them if they fall.’ Grant Morrison, JLA #4

In Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, he writes and performs observations about the character that could be seen as extreme yet breaks boundaries in how Superman’s own symbol of hope could be perceived. During the first chapter, ‘The Sun God and the Dark Knight’, Morrison states that:

‘When a god elects to come to Earth, he has to make a few sacrifices. In order to be born, Superman was called upon to surrender a few of his principles. As the price of incarnation, the son of Jor-El of Krypton was compelled to make a terrible bargain with the complex, twisty forces of this material world. That S is a serpent, too, and carries its own curse.’ (Morrison, 2011, p. 16)

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Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, 2005-2008.

The ‘Sun God’, as Morrison refers to Superman, commits the ultimate sacrifice in, perhaps, the most definitive of his stories, All-Star Superman (2005-2008)a tale told with enough depth and poetic virtue that only elevated the actions of a dying hero beyond a the stature of a God…while still remaining the most human at heart, As she spoke, I watched 35,000 dead skin cells scatter like confetti…like promises…like the dust of dead stars.’ Although the Death of Superman during the 90s was a huge success, it was a product of its time – seen by many as more of a crass marketing move to increase sales that reflected the decline in the market that would follow. Morrison’s interpretation was story first and foremost – a version of Superman’s final sacrifice that could be taken as cannon as much as those reading Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Surreal, cerebral and playing against the conventions of comic book narrative, All-Star set out to reconnect with Kal-El through his final days. In contracting radiation poisoning while saving a mission to the sun, Superman, through a series of episodes, comes in to contact with a number of characters who are both his strengths and weaknesses. However, during his contact with them he leaves his mark before making his final sacrifice by reigniting the sun. In his final moments, Kal-El, Man of Steel, Man of Tomorrow…Superman, leaves Clark Kent behind and begins his transition to become the saviour he is destined to be and in doing so becomes the power at the centre of our universe.

To be continued in Part VI: Choices

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75 Years of Superman – Part IV

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Christopher’s Reeve’s definitive incarnation of the Man of Steel in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978).

On Screen

‘What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely. From an acting point of view, that’s how I approached the part.’ Christopher Reeve

After the birth of the blockbuster in 1975, heralded by Steven Spielberg’s monumental Jaws, further big screen success soon followed in the shape of a science fiction, fantasy epic that harkened back to the serial matinees and pulps of the 1930s – an influence of popular culture at that time that was already a core part of Superman’s own DNA. With the release of Star Wars in 1977 it was clear that audiences were ready to embark on more epic adventures that embraced both character and the world they inhabited in a serious light. It was the right time to bring Superman to the big screen and explore the first superhero with genuine respect and belief that, ‘a man could fly’. Originally conceived in 1973, Superman: The Movie began to be developed and in seeking a scriptwriter, the producers turned to Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather to write the first draft. In order to remove the more campy elements, Richard Donner, who had been hired as Director after the commercial success of The Omen, hired Tom Mankiewicz as a creative consultant where the final script was given a more distinctive three act structure to help characterise the Superman universe.

‘This is no fantasy – no careless product of wild imagination. No, my friends. These indictments that I have brought to you today, specific charges herein against the individuals. Their acts of treason, their ultimate aim of sedition. These… are matters of undeniable fact. I ask you now to pronounce judgement on those accused.’ Jor-El, Superman: The Movie, 1978

During the opening act on the planet Krypton, Marlon Brando delivers his (fed) lines in an almost Shakespearean gravitas – the council halls and chambers of justice lit like the Heavens before it descends in to the all too familiar hue of Hell. The second act delves more in to Kal-El’s humble upbringing in Smallville resembling the spirit of Twain and Steinbeck before the final act arrives in the sprawling cityscape of modern America. By the time Kal-El has discovered the Fortress of Solitude and accepted his birthright we are finally introduced to the greatest representation of Superman to date.

‘Your name is Kal-El. You are the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Even though you’ve been raised as a human, you are not one of them. You have great powers, only some of which you have discovered.’ Jor-El, Superman: The Movie, 1978

As an unknown, Christopher Reeve embraced the nobility and spirit of Superman while at the same time showcasing his versatility as an actor in his portrayal of the mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent. Through subtle use of posture and bumbling awkwardness, Reeve was able to capture the hearts of millions with his definitive representation of the character. Reeve not only managed to capture the heart of millions and expose Superman to a new generation but also, along with Donner’s vision, gave birth to the first, true superhero on film that has become the blueprint for comic book movies ever since.

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‘Kneel before Zod.’ In one of the most iconic onscreen villains to date, Terrance Stamp’s General Zod would present a genuine threat to Superman – intensified further by his choice of mortality in Superman II (1980).

With up to 75% of Superman II already in the can, Richard Donner’s disputes with the Producers left a large portion of the film unfinished. Steeped in controversy, Richard Lester continued to film an additional 51% of the film in order to acquire the credit as Director. The film’s story begins with the arrival of the Kryptonian villains – Terrance Stamp’s menacing portrayal as General Zod, femme fatale,  Ursa and the brainless brute, Non – and ends with Kal-El regaining his renounced powers after making the ultimate sacrifice to become human. Criticised by Donner for defaulting to audience expectations and Hollywood contrivances, it wasn’t until 2006 that the original vision for the sequel was released as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut restoring up to 83% of Donner’s footage with snippets of Lester’s scenes to assist the narrative gaps needed to be filled.

Two more sequels were made to lesser success before Christopher Reeve retired from the part where, in 1995, he suffered a critical accident that harkened yet another tragic event with an actor linked to the part. With his strength and determination ultimately put to the test after thrown from a horse; in his final decade Christopher Reeve had become a representative of those who had suffered similar injuries and although his accident was seen as a cruel act of circumstance, the mark of his character would go on to touch millions of more lives through the harsh reality of his situation as much as through the fantasy of his onscreen presence. Christopher Reeve was more than just the people’s Superman…he was Superman.

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Nicolas Cage’s costume fitting for Tim Burton’s ill-fated 90s reboot, Superman Lives.

However, the cinematic version would not be laid to rest. After several drafts, Clerks Director, Kevin Smith had been approached after his geek references were firmly worn on his sleeve and showcased to outlandish effect in his second film, Mallrats. Steeped in comic book fandom and supreme knowledge of the medium, it is of no surprise that Smith’s version of the treatment was considered to be the most faithful to the mythos – having built on The Death of Superman storyline that previous drafts had been based on. Tim Burton’s ill conceived reimagining followed with a miscast Nicolas Cage in the central role, envisioned a darker, more surreal take that seemed far more shaped to the success of Batman’s broodier nature, rather than the optimism of the Man of Tomorrow. Now, all that seemed to be left during the 90s was television where Superman’s popularity had returned to the small screen with a more romantic take on the character in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997). Later, as popular television programs such as Dawson’s Creek and Buffy: the Vampire Slayer personified the more hip, (unrealistic) philosophical teenager; a fresh take on the concept of a teen Superman took on the shape of the television series, Smallville (2001-2011), which envisioned the early years of Clark Kent before he would inevitably wear the cape. During the show’s success his return to the big screen in Superman Returns (2006) managed to capture a sense of nostalgia and eerie familiarity in the presence of Brandon Routh’s personification of Christopher Reeve.  In his attempt to reignite the franchise, Director Bryan Singer had tried to capture the same ‘genie in a bottle’ that had brought the X-Men franchise to the big screen – but with mixed reviews (Superman reverting to a peeping Tom and home wrecker) it seemed certain sensibilities were handled in an awkward manner that, at times, seemed oddly out of touch.

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Man of Steel (2013) official film poster. After the success of Batman’s rebrand as The Dark Knight, it was only inevitable that Superman was rewarded the same treatment.

We are currently still within a depression and in an effort to reach a wider audience and deliver a modern, cinematic rendition of the character, Christopher Nolan’s production of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, released on June 14th, 2013, has the potential to deliver ‘hope’ to the masses in the form of escapist and equally optimistic entertainment. In the relatively unknown, Henry Cavill – another British actor who has become fortunate enough to personify one of the ‘big two’ – we are sure to witness an actor who will encompass a similar gravitas and humble nature, much like his presence as Charles Brandon in the television series, The Tudors (2007-2010). Man of Steel arrives at a turning point where hopefully the public wish to see less of the dark and brooding nature of flawed heroes and seek a supreme example of what a hero is – ‘You will give the people an ideal to strive towards…’ – That means no anti heroes or dark avengers – a hero who is pure and unparalleled – a hero who, despite their God-like abilities, is first and foremost human at heart – pure, incorruptible and an inspiration to millions.

To be continued in Part V: Origin(al) Tales

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75 Years of Superman – Part III

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Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent published in 1954 ended the Golden Age in his cynical, damaging account of the influence of comic books on youth culture.

Truth, Justice and the American Way

‘Superman has the big the big S on his uniform – we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.’ Fredric Wertham

In 1954, German-American psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham’s damaging study on the impact of comics on youth culture was reflected in his book, The Seduction of the Innocent. Not only did Wertham set out to prove that adult content, depicted in popular crime and horror comics, was corrupting youth culture, but also the positive role models of superheroes. It was one point to highlight and attempt to prove the influence of sex, violence and drug use corrupting the children of the time, but Wertham went further in the hidden conjectures of Wonder Woman’s bondage, Batman and Robin’s homosexuality and Superman’s fascism. Although Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton had admitted to misogynistic undertones during her early years, Wertham only further documented the evidence, fueling more claims that her strength and independence presented her as a lesbian.

Despite Siegel and Shuster’s left-wing stance that originally championed Superman as a social activist in his fight against corrupt politicians and businessmen, Wertham’s misguided theories were selective at best. Even in light of the Roosevelt era, which tended to lean more towards a more liberal idealism, there was still no denying the good causes that the character continued to uphold – non more so than his battle against the Ku Klux Klan during a 1946 Radio broadcast. Having tapped in to an important aspect of the American identity, made more relatable due to their own Jewish immigrant background, it seemed implausible for fascism to rear its ugly head. But in their links to Neitzche’s influential work and further evidence that Hitler had found relevancy in shaping his own new world order, Wertham stood by his beliefs.

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Classical Greek sculpture depicted the battles, mythology, and rulers of Greece. Changes in style saw improvements in the function of sculpture, along with a dramatic increase in technical skill that represented a more realistic human form. ‘Realistic’ in the true, Greek sense of the word – showcasing the perfect human form of a ‘super man’.

Superheroes, have indeed gone on to glorify the physical form in much the same way as the historical, stylised images and sculptures of the Greeks and Romans. The study of human anatomy was one that related to power and godhood as much as understanding the processes involved in depicting the physical form and in looking at theses examples in more detail it is easy to see how vulnerable Superman is to such accusations of fascism. Even when considered coincidental, it is still enough to spark strong debate. His adversary, Lex Luthor is a man of high intellect concerned with domination and the manipulation of society, utilising both science and reason in his efforts to destroy Metropolis or rather bend the utopian city to his own means. Yet, it is Superman, with his sheer strength who prevails in forcing man to surrender his own beliefs in forcing the physically weaker to yield and prevent their twisted ideals. Either way, Wertham used both perspectives of the superhero and villain, only seeing the patriotic stance of, ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ as no more than nationalism. Fascists were not the first to use classical archetypes and physically imposing figures to convey a message nor will they be the last. Throughout history there are many beautiful interpretations of human nature that have inspired godlike figures and it is only in the eyes of those who wish to use these examples to empower and dictate that they should be labeled ‘fascist’. Superman reminds us that there is a limit to reason and that this is seen through his enemies in their own blind devotion to an irrational worldview.

Seduction of the Innocent resulted in the establishment of the Comics Authority Code and the banning of major horror and crime titles of the time, which resulted in the death of the Golden Age. Since its publication, Wertham’s theories have been disproven and his own motives questioned in targeting the comics industry. Superman survived the claims and in 1951 his first foray in to a feature length film was released. Superman and the Mole Men rejuvenated the ailing career of George Reeves who went on to star in the hugely popular television series, Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958. However, despite Superman surviving fascist accusations, news headlines in 1959 reported George Reeves’ apparent suicide – a mysterious Hollywood case that gave rise to the first, official ‘Death of Superman’. For millions of fans, Superman was dead and the empire surrounding the Man of Steel seemed more at risk than ever before. However, despite his film and television incarnations and the related merchandise linked to the popular series, Reeve’s death had no impact on the comics.

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Despite it’s February, 1964 issue date, Action Comics #309, hit the stands in the first week of December, roughly a week after JFK’s assassination and was too late to be recalled.

In their efforts to make the new stories less physical and more emotional, DC comics began to channel the current zeitgeist and build further on their success in channeling the popularity of the space related merchandise aimed at children. The late 1950s were considered to be the beginning of the Silver Age of comics and during the 1960s, Superman became more in tune with the newly elected John F. Kennedy’s values and optimism. However, when another generation grew disillusioned upon his assassination, optimism spiraled in to race riots and militant activism against the Vietnam War. After a more spiritual revival in the aftermath of the Vietnam, the Judeo-Christian allegory was brought more to the forefront – not so much a substitute for a religion but for the underlining mythology that had developed over the years and made Superman such a universal character. The time had arrived to inject the right amount of depth and poignancy and deliver a fresh cinematic vision that would serve the character justice.

To be continued in Part IV: On Screen

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75 Years of Superman – Part II

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The classic Fleischer Brothers’ animated Superman from 1941 which was unrivalled until 50 years later with Warner Brothers’ visual homage in Batman: the Animated Series (1992) and subsequent Superman: the Animated Series (1996).

Power and Invention

‘Up in the sky! Look!…It’s a bird!…It’s a plane!…It’s Superman! The Adventures of Superman, Radio serial

During his early years, Superman’s powers were limited as he leapt from one building to the next; his strength a fraction of the magnitude we are familiar with today. Different mediums embraced fresh ways to tell his stories and the first steps of his evolution began to take to the skies as major developments of his persona and mythology were heard on Radio. With access to millions of homes, The Adventures of Superman (1940-1951) first introduced the concepts that Superman could fly and that the radioactive meteorite, Kryptonite was his primary weakness. Not only could his adventures be heard for the first time but also seen in the Oscar nominated Fleischer Brothers’ animations, where he soared above the city of Metropolis in vibrant colours – the technical approach to each episode rivaling Disney’s best efforts at a cost of $1 million an episode.

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Action Comics #101, October 1946. A poignant view of the destructive power of the Atom bomb – here Superman is depicted as photo recognisant putting his journalistic skills to the ultimate test. It is no coincidence that the cover reads much like a news piece.

However, when America entered World War II, the notion of a comic book hero had become insensitive due to the reality of conflict and the extreme efforts of the military forces. Now, designed to advertise war bonds and used as nothing more than satire, Superman’s original symbol of hope was a notion that society struggled to comprehend in the severity of war. The big, blue Boy Scout’s stories could not solve the problems of the world – this was reality and the problems still existed the next morning. After the conflict had ended with the Atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the destructible power of human nature had finally reached a crescendo. Not only did this question what we had become but what kind of hero the world would need to save us from such omnipresent power placed in the wrong hands. Superman’s strength needed to be truly epic – his power to rival and overshadow any potential threat. Over the years, his strength would more directly be absorbed from his own atomic symbol, the red sun – the same source of power at the centre of his home galaxy. Now he would have to become so much more than a symbol of moral goodness and social responsibility; now he would become a symbol of great power and even greater responsibility on a truly universal and galactic scale.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still was a bleak reminder of man losing control of his ambitious nature.

Man’s invention and ambition would reach a catalyst after World War II. With greater speed and power harnessed through the technology developed for warfare – both the jet engine and atomic power would begin to shape two nations in their race to reach the moon. With capitalist and opposing communist forces gathering their strongest resources and scientific research, the 1950s would present a new threat to the US. Paranoia. As the United States and Soviet Union coveted their own ideas and atomic weapons; the growing threat increased and through the media clever metaphor was implemented to represent the key messages and subtext the United States wished to convey. In the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still an alien visitor arrives on earth, accompanied by a powerful robot, in order to present the ultimate message to Earth – that if humanity continue to extend their violence beyond their own planet, the robots will destroy humanity. The alien, Klaatu is, in fact, revealed as a human in the same light as Superman – a messenger and could be argued, a reluctant savior. It was therefore no coincidence that during this time the idea of ‘aliens amongst us’ showcased in the onslaught of sci-fi B-movies that followed the popularity of The Day the Earth Stood Still, depicted invading forces from another world. In truth, the aliens were the Russians.

As modern technology continued to shape and improve lifestyle and enhance the American Dream, Superman would finally begin to embrace his sci-fi heritage, which, up until this point had been kept to a bear minimum by his original creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. These important elements, which had originally pioneered the character, had been used to minimal effect and now, during the Space Race, Interplanetary escapades, futuristic adventures, and cosmic characters finally had a role in the ongoing saga of Superman. The development of a vast mythology followed with seven titles collectively selling 4 million copies a month where Editors handed over complete control to the writers and artists of the time that resulted in a mixed bag of ideas. There were the more familiar concepts including Kryptonian villians such as the infamous General Zod and the shrunken, capital city of Kandor, while at the same time there were the more outlandish use of super dogs, super horses and super monkeys. All the while, Superman’s own powers began to increase in the light of the atomic age – he had eventually become so powerful that he could blow out stars in the same way you would blow out a candle and it was during this time that writers began to struggle to find relevant stories. With such a powerful being, how could there be any conflict? Without conflict there is no drama and without drama there is no character.

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First appearance of Brainiac in Action Comics #242 in July, 1958. Whether alien entity, A.I. or a combination of both – the character has been revised a number of times yet is still distinguished by his green skin and the trio of diodes on his cranium.

Influenced further by cinema and the pulp literature that was still being printed at the time, fans were introduced to some of the first super-villains, whose origins stemmed from the greatest aspects of science fiction. Whether it was the imperfect imitation of life known as Bizarro or the ultimate green-skinned, alien invader Brainiac (later to evolve in to Krypton’s A.I.) – finally there were rivals who would stand up to Superman’s strength and prove his might more than ever before. Writers also sought to develop Superman’s character through the impact of the destruction of his home world, Krypton which was expanded on in more thought provoking ways to reinforce the more personalised, character driven story arcs. The concept of Krytonite was also developed providing his archenemy, Lex Luthor with a new weapon to help bring the Man of Steel to his knees. Superman #76 (May-June 1952) debuted the ‘world’s finest team-up’, as DC Comics’ two greatest super-heroes finally united. From there, the duo of Superman and Batman would reunite in World’s Finest Comics. The formation of the Justice League of America soon followed where other members of the team looked for guidance in conquering universal forces of evil – Superman was no longer the leader and patriarch of Earth but also the leader of a growing family and culture of superheroes.

However, during these years, while battling alien enemies and other forces of evil beyond the confines of the human imagination, a more sinister threat would raise its ugly head. The comic book industry was now in a state of transition as the final years of the Golden Age were about to be challenged both by public reception and the damaging publication of the infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent.

To be continued in Part III: Truth, Justice and the American Way

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