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Monday, November 26, 2007


Before we begin this week's Blog, just a quick note: I now have a tie for best film of 2007. Sharing this honor with Across the Universe is the new Disney release, Enchanted. I saw it Friday afternoon and will be seeing it again this coming weekend to pick up on all the details I missed the first time. And I'm planning on getting the soundtrack too. Wonderful piece of work, this; some parts of it you'll just have to see to believe. (Like the sequence in which Giselle [Amy Adams] tidies up Robert's [Patrick Dempsey] apartment. Snow White, this isn't!) Nothing should be too big to come in for a little good-natured parody, and Disney should have had fun with its image and history this way a long time ago. See this picture. You too will be Enchanted, I'm sure.

Now, for new Blog business, the following...

Just what happens to your relationship with Christmas as you get older, anyway? I remember when Christmas was my absolute favorite holiday. I loved it. LOVED it. And I thought I always would. Truth to tell, what I enjoy most about Christmas is the stuff you're supposed to enjoy, the time spent with family, and a personal ritual that I've started for Christmas Eve, which I'll share with you in a few weeks. My real favorite part of the holiday season is actually New Year's Eve, and I have a personal tradition for that too, part of which I've already mentioned (the Sci Fi Channel Twilight Zone Marathon) and part of which I'll also share with you in a few weeks. But all the other stuff? I've just realized that for the past I-don't-know-how-many years I've been suffering from Charlie Brown Syndrome. You know what that is, the thing that happens to Charlie Brown in the Christmas TV special when all the glitz and fuss of the holiday season starts to depress him. (Oh, and we're going to talk about those holiday TV specials in a minute; wait for it.) I used to love that part of the holidays as much as the other stuff. But now? I just get tired thinking about it.

I used to have a little contest with myself about Christmas morning. I would try to get up a little earlier on Christmas morning every year than I did the previous year. I'd just get so excited over all the loot and goodies I was expecting that I couldn't wait to get at it. I think my record for a Christmas morning reveille was 5 AM. These days, unless I'm traveling somewhere or I'm going to a science fiction or comic convention, I can't think of a damn thing for which I would willingly and not grudgingly drag my tired, sleep-craving behind out of bed at that hour. The bloom is definitely off that particular Poinsettia.

As I got older, the focus of my enthusiasm changed from getting to giving. I absolutely loved Christmas shopping. I looked forward to it as one of the fun challenges of my year, making my list of whom I was giving what and doing my annual scavenger hunt through all the local malls and shops to find every perfect thing for every specific person. And I used to love shopping for the tree, picking out exactly the right one, bringing it home, and having my sister over to decorate. Man, did Prinny and I put up some great trees! I'd sit for hours with just the tree lights on, sipping my egg nog, and admiring our handiwork. I thought that was fun. I haven't done it in years. I find it exhausting. That's what the mixture of age and the holidays does to you.

Today, my family's gift giving revolves round the custom of the Santa Bag, which Prinny proposed and we've all signed on for. You know how that works: Everyone's name is put in a hat, and everyone draws out one name without looking. Random chance determines whom you're giving to and who's giving to you, and your assignment is to come up with one item that's right for one person. The name drawing is done at Thanksgiving dinner, meaning we all got our assignments three days ago. I've already identified a potential place to shop for my person--my beloved old scavenger hunt, cut down to just one thing for one loved one. And I can live with it.

Of course, another part of the fun is wondering who drew my name. I'll admit, one year I found the master list and cheated and looked. But I haven't seen the list this year. I know where it probably is, but I haven't taken a peek. And I probably won't.

To tell you the truth, I look forward to a time when I'll be able to give myself one special Christmas gift every year. Some day I want to be able to excuse myself from Christmas entirely. I want to travel for Christmas, spend it in the UK (where I know some people, thanks to this very Internet on which we're communicating now) or France; perhaps drop in on a friend of mine who just moved from Mexico to Spain. One of these years I'm going to start that as my new tradition; have Thanksgiving with the family and mail my Santa Bag assignment to my recipient, and have mine mailed to me, and just leave the country, check in at some nice place, and let it all go by without me. I have reasons for this. It's not just about getting older; there are some personal things that I'm not ready to share right now. One of these years, maybe. But excusing myself from Christmas and coming home for New Year's Eve is something I look forward to doing one day.

Yep, Charlie Brown Syndrome it is. Which brings me back to the subject of those holiday TV specials. They were another thing that I loved about this time of year; those animated shows, ostensibly for children, but written so that grown-ups could appreciate them too, which used to proliferate on network TV every December. Every year seemed to bring some new ones, and of course no Christmas was complete without the classics. Even now, I wouldn't think of letting a Christmas go by without watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. (One year I did somehow manage to miss Rudolph, and I was just depressed!) But time began to have its way with this tradition too, and it had nothing to do with me. Gradually, these shows began to disappear from network television. I've long suspected that CBS, NBC, and ABC began to cut them off the schedule because some fool in an over-priced suit got it into his head that they couldn't collect the same advertising revenues for these specials that they could for regular programming. So now, most of these shows turn up only on Cable networks. For a few years, The Grinch was actually banished to Turner stations until ABC reinstated it. The Grinch, for crying out loud! You still have to have ABC Family on your Cable service to see most of these shows, and there are some I haven't seen in the Grinch-knows-how-long because I don't have time to go hunting for them. (The Little Drummer Boy comes to mind.) And there are some that have fallen into near-complete obscurity because of this. Remember Cricket on the Hearth and A Cricket in Times Square? And Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus? And The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas? You probably don't. I barely do myself.

Oh, and then there is the truly pernicious practice of cutting material out of those shows to make room for extra advertising time, or because some fool in an over-priced suit thinks you don't have the patience to sit through them as they were originally presented and meant to be seen. There are two of these, which usually run in prime time on ABC Family, that I almost can't bear to look at any more: Santa Claus is Comin' to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus. I'm sure you know these. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town is, of course, the Rankin-Bass special about the origin of Santa Claus (which is so clever that to this day I take it as The Real Story). The Year Without a Santa Claus, by that same Rankin-Bass, tells the story of what happened the year Santa got fed up with the world's cynicism and canceled his Yuletide run; it's the one everyone loves because of the Heat Miser/Snow Miser dueling musical numbers. ("I'm Mr. Heat Blister, I'm Mr. Sun/I'm Mr. White Christmas, I'm Mr. Hundred-and-One!") Well, these two are holiday staples of ABC Family, all right--but don't expect to see them in their entirety. Every year they turn up, and every year there's stuff missing from them. There's a number in Santas Claus is Comin'... called "When You Sit on My Lap Today" and one in The Year Without... called "Anyone Can Play Santa" (in which Mrs. Claus does Santa Claus drag!) that I haven't seen in ages. Santa Claus is Comin' has also long been missing its romantic ballad in which schoolteacher Jessica, the future Mrs. Claus, realizes she's falling in love with the red-suited stranger with the bag of toys. And in another cartoon classic, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, based on the Clement Clark Moore poem, another song is on the cutting room floor as well. Every time I see that show, I notice the awkward jump in the story where something has been deleted. I think it's "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand." I watch this one because the song that I really, really love from it, "Christmas Chimes are Calling," is critical to the final act and can't be removed, so there! But really, this whole practice of cutting up classic holiday shows is one that I find as offensive as the banishment of traditional theme songs and opening titles from regular shows. (See my "Variations on No Themes" post, October 29, 2007.)

That's why, for this Christmas, I'm going to give myself the gift of Netflix and just rent the damn things on DVD and see them the way they're supposed to be seen, with everything that was put into them still actually there! Oh, I'll still watch Charlie Brown and Rudolph and The Grinch on the commercial networks (CBS had an attack of decency a few years ago and actually put back most of the stuff that was cut from Rudolph), but for Santa Claus is Comin'..., The Year Without a Santa..., and 'Twas the Night Before..., it's Netflix all the way, Baby! This will be the last year that TV puts a part of my holiday on the cutting room floor!

Monday, November 19, 2007


There's some good news about the Writers' Guild of America strike, or at least it will be good news for some people. The anticipated effects of the strike on daytime television will not be quite as bad as feared, at least not on ABC. It's been reported that All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital are all written up through February and will be able to continue shooting new episodes unhindered while networks and studios are in negotiation with the Guild. So, while I don't necessarily know what's going to happen with NBC's The Days of Our Lives and the soaps of CBS, at least at ABC the shows will go on for most of the winter.

Meanwhile, this past Tuesday, I spent the evening at the cinema, where I treated myself to a theatrical showing of the 1966 Star Trek episode "The Menagerie". This release, apparently, is a promotion for the remastered television airings of the 1960s Trek series that have been running since last season. (And you haven't lived till you've seen the truly awesome job they did with the episode "The Doomsday Machine" in particular, which I just watched for the second time this evening.) The big-screen presentation of Gene Roddenberry's masterpiece, which won Star Trek one of its three Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation (the other two were for "City on the Edge of Forever" and "All Good Things..."), was truly fun to watch. The story, which happens to be my very favorite episode of the 60s show, was fun to see blown up to that size, and it still holds up after all these years. It was also nice to see the preamble to the episodes, a behind-the-scenes mini-documentary anchored by Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, Gene's son, and featuring spot interviews with some of the production staff including Michael and Denise Okuda. I happen to have been very briefly, casually acquainted with the Okudas. During my Screenwriting Internship with the TV series Star Trek Voyager, I got to sit in on production meetings with them, and I also spent part of an afternoon visiting the Deep Space Nine Art Department, where I had a personal chat with Michael. If I haven't mentioned this little adventure before, it's something that I was going to get round to sooner or later. It's such an unusually interesting part of my life, and such a long and detailed and involved story, that I can't really tell you about it in just one Blog. I'll have to set aside several entries at some time in the future to elaborate on the whole thing. I observed and learned some very interesting things during those six weeks at Paramount looking at a Star Trek series from the inside, and I can't really do justice to all that right now. Which is one reason I guess you're going to have to keep visiting The Quantum Blog...

However, here's what I'll call the first in a series of J.A. FLUDD FACTOIDS for you. I make it a custom to applaud or cheer Gene Roddenberry's name in the credits of any Star Trek production. When I was first seriously learning about Star Trek, what it is and what it means (and I am NOT someone to whom you want to say that Star Trek is just a TV show or a lot of movies), I respected Kirk, admired Spock, and had a chaste crush on Uhura (see the "October 1987" post of The Quantum Blog)--but the one I wanted to be was THE CREATOR, the Great Bird of the Galaxy, the visionary from whose mind it all sprang: Gene Roddenberry. In fact, the first thing I did upon arriving in LA for my Internship was to find Gene's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, kneel before it, and trace the letters of his name with my fingertip.

And here's some background about "The Menagerie" that some of you may or may not have known. "The Menagerie" is the story of Spock's self-appointed mission of mercy on behalf of his former Captain, Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter). Pike, a great hero, rescued a group of Starfleet Cadets from a reactor accident and took a massive dose of Delta rays that reduced him to a burned and nearly lifeless husk of a man. Trapped in a vegetated body and kept alive in a life-support chair, unable to speak, Pike was doomed to an existence of misery. But Spock knew a way to release Pike from his suffering--at the risk of his career and his life--by returning him to the forbidden planet of Talos IV, which the Enterprise had once visited. Pike's experience on Talos IV was the reason why the Federation had declared the planet off-limits on pain of the death penalty itself--but a combination of logic and compassion that only a Vulcan would understand drove Spock to hijack the Enterprise and return his ex-Captain to that planet of illusion-casting telepaths, and the woman Pike had left there. Anyway, "The Menagerie" is a two-parter consisting of a framing sequence dealing with Spock's apparent mutiny and court martial. For his defense, he shows the transmitted record of Pike's Talos IV adventure, which is in fact the re-edited footage of the original Star Trek pilot episode, "The Cage".

The making of "The Cage" and how it was received is one of the great TV legends. Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced the original Trek pilot with the backing of Desilu Studios. (The original owner and one of the initial champions of Star Trek was none other than Lucille Ball herself--another reason, if any be needed, to love Lucy!) CBS saw "The Cage" and liked it--but passed on it, deeming it "too cerebral" and over the heads of its audience! They wanted a science fiction show, but they wanted something that they thought the lowbrow rubes in TV Land would find easier to understand. (Seriously, the only reason CBS kept the original Twilight Zone for five years was that it was created and written by Rod Serling and it lent them an air of prestige!) So they passed on Star Trek and went with Lost in Space. No lie! However, CBS was also sufficiently impressed with the content and detail of the show that they commissioned a second pilot, which had never been done. The second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," which was just as intelligent as "The Cage" but more of a space Western with good old All-American violence in it, was what sold the show--not to CBS, but to NBC. Would you believe that one of the notes that Gene got for the production of the second pilot was to "lose the guy with the ears"? Yep, the network brass was afraid that Spock's "satanic" look would scare the simple folk in Peoria, or some such thing. But Gene insisted that a show set in the space-traveling future ought to have an alien in the regular cast, so Spock stayed. Good call, Gene!

In the meantime, Gene lost his leading man. The story has it that Jeffrey Hunter's wife considered her husband a serious actor and thought this science fiction rubbish was beneath him, so Jeffrey gave up playing Captain Pike (and lost out on the chance to build one of popular culture's greatest legends), clearing the way for William Shatner to beam aboard as Captain James T. Kirk. (And I'll always wonder what Star Trek would have been like with Hunter's Christopher Pike as the lead--he was a seriously hot guy and made an excellent hero.)

Anyway, the recast, retooled Star Trek debuted on NBC and settled into a weekly time slot. However, "The Cage" was the most expensive TV pilot ever to be produced at that time, and Desilu wanted to recover its investment in the show. So Gene came up with a way to give them their money's worth. That was "The Menagerie," an elegant and engrossing two-parter about reality versus illusion and whether it's better to live in a real world or one of the imagination. (Frankly, I'll take imagination. Put me on the next ship to Talos IV, please!) And as I immersed myself in Star Trek over the years, "The Menagerie" became my favorite episode.

That was when Star Trek was just one TV series, cut short of its "five-year mission" with just 79 episodes. Now, of course, there's a lot more of Trek to love, and every series offers an episode I can point to as a favorite. Which is as good a cue as any for a list!

THE BEST OF STAR TREK ANIMATED: "The Slaver Weapon". You may or may not consider the animated Star Trek to be canonical; that is, on the official record. (Gene, before he died, expressed his view that animated Trek was not to be taken as canonical except for the episode "Yesteryear," whose account of Spock's boyhood is corroborated in the live episodes "Journey to Babel" and "Unification I and II".) However, some very good stuff was done in those shows, the most unique of which was the only Kirk-less voyage of "Classic Trek". In "The Slaver Weapon," science fiction writer Larry Niven adapts his "Known Space" books and stories into the Star Trek universe, pitting Spock, Uhura, and Sulu against the warlike, feline Kzinti for possession of a Slaver Stasis Box. This relic of a tyrannical alien civilization that once ruled the galaxy contains a weapon so powerful, so terrifying, that it can tilt the balance of power in the galaxy. The original Star Trek prided itself on using writing talent from the world of science fiction literature, a tradition that this episode continues.

THE BEST STAR TREK MOVIE: The Wrath of Khan. The Star Trek film series began with a big-screen version of what was meant to be the pilot for the unproduced Star Trek Phase II series, "In Thy Image". Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a cosmically awesome and ambitious story about the search for meaning and value in life and the relationship between man and God--but coming immediately in the wake of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it didn't meet a lot of people's expectations. (In fact, it was a little too much in love with its own special effects, which had a way of bringing the story to a screeching halt.) The Trek movie that people really wanted to see was the second one, The Wrath of Khan. This is, of course, a sequel to the TV episode "Space Seed" in which our crew must once again battle Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban), the tyrant from Earth's Eugenics Wars. The Wrath of Khan, in addition to being a crowd-pleasing shoot-'em-up in space, is another elegantly constructed story about the cyclic nature of life, from birth to youth to age to death to new life. Every situation in the film is about things going in circles, and in Kirk's case, about things from your past catching up with you: not just the return of Khan, but the discovery that one of his countless dalliances has produced a son who can't stand him! (The big surprise is that David, played by the late Merritt Buttrick, is the only known Kirk love-child!) And, of course, Khan is also famous for the climactic sacrifice of Spock, who lays down his life to save Kirk and the ship--one of the most heart-rending plot points in film history. Remember my ex-classmate Sven from the "October 1987" post? The first time I saw The Wrath of Khan, I saw it with him, Karl, and Logan. Afterwards, I was mulling over the incredible story we had just witnessed and said to Sven, "Do you realize what we've just seen?" And do you know that dullard actually replied to me, "Yeah...a movie." God, but I used to associate with such human driftwood! I wish I could have taken a phaser to that clod!

THE BEST OF THE NEXT GENERATION: "The Best of Both Worlds". When I think of the TV cliffhangers that have kept me squirming for entire summers, I remember Mary Hartman's nervous breakdown (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), Jessica Tate's murder conviction and the Announcer telling us that either Corinne, Chester, Benson, Jodie, or Burt really killed Peter Campbell (Soap), the shooting of JR (Dallas)--and the transformation of Jean Luc Picard into Locutus of Borg! I agonized over this one in particular; as the first true Star Trek cliffhanger, it just struck closest to home. Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), who stood for everything that was good and right in the galaxy, had been suborned into the service of the most powerful, relentless, and terrifying enemy the Federation ever faced, and had become the mortal enemy of all sentient life. Promotion posters from Paramount screamed, "Save Earth from Picard!" Locutus was after Earth, Starfleet, and everyone! No one was safe--not the Vulcans, not the Klingons, not the Romulans! We were all doomed--unless Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), forced to battle his own Captain, could somehow pull it out of the fire! How could Will do it? Would Jean Luc be saved or would Will be forced to destroy him? And what could possibly repel the evil Borg? Trekkers the world over look to "The Best of Both Worlds," which closed the third season and opened the fourth, as Next Generation's masterpiece, and so it was.

THE BEST OF DEEP SPACE NINE: "Far Beyond the Stars". And when I think of the Trek episodes that make me proud to be a Trekker, this one shoots to the top of the list. Produced for African-American History Month, "Far Beyond the Stars" is one of the few times that Star Trek--whose United Federation of Planets is a Utopia without prejudice or poverty--has been able to look racism squarely in the eye. They did it by having the creatures of the Bajoran Wormhole--a.k.a. The Prophets--cause Captain Ben Sisko (Avery Brooks, whom I met on my last day at Paramount) to live a portion of the life of Benny Russell, a terrestrial science fiction writer in the 1950s. As Benny, Sisko experiences racial hatred and inequality as it existed on 20th Century Earth. Benny has written a story about a 24th Century space station and its black Captain, which the magazine he works for refuses to publish, to Benny's frustration. All of the regular and recurring Deep Space Nine players take on terrestrial, 20th Century parts for this story, which looks at Benny's situation from every angle--and climaxes in his complete mental collapse when his craven editor (Rene Auberjonois, stepping out of the character of Odo) approves the story only to have the publisher pulp the whole issue! This is one of the most poignant and heartbreaking, but also life-affirming, stories you'll ever see--life-affirming because while Benny's fate is tragic, we know that humanity in the Star Trek universe ultimately learns better and becomes what it ought to be, and earns its way to the stars. This is one of the finest hours of television it's ever been my honor to watch.

THE BEST OF VOYAGER: "Distant Origin". I have a very personal attachment to this story. Although its subject matter would have made it my favorite episode no matter what, "Distant Origin" happens by coincidence to be the episode they were working on when I arrived at Voyager. As a confirmed, science-loving secular humanist, I love this story. I think it is truly brilliant! "Distant Origin" should have been called "Inherit the Solar Wind". It is the story of the Voths--a proud and powerful civilization of reptiles who evolved from dinosaurs who became intelligent and escaped Earth before the killer asteroid hit! (One day in Voyager co-creator Jeri Taylor's office--which was once Gene Roddenberry's office--I was sitting in on a writer's meeting when some people from the Makeup department came in with an actor in a prototype for the Voth makeup design; thus I may have been the first fan to see the Voths.) The Voths migrated to the remote Delta Quadrant of the galaxy and grew to see themselves as the born and destined rulers of that quadrant. So, when this pesky little starship named Voyager came tooling by, full of creatures with genetic markers similar to those of the Voths, which confirmed an heretical theory about the Voths' true origins, the leadership of the Voths felt more than a little threatened. What ensued was nothing less than the dinosaur version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, with Chakotay (Robert Beltran) defending "the Distant Origin Theory" and the lives of everyone aboard Voyager, and the fate of our crew on the line! This was just so delightful; I think Gene would have loved it as much as I did!

THE BEST OF ENTERPRISE: "In a Mirror Darkly". Much as I liked the final Star Trek series, I truly wish the whole thing had been like the fourth season, which was when Enterprise finally became what it was supposed to be: a prequel to the original Star Trek. Most of the best stuff in this show, in my opinion, falls in the last year. If the whole series had been like season 4, Enterprise might have run for seven seasons the way Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager did. Nevertheless, the most inventive episode of Enterprise was this two-parter, set entirely in the corrupt Mirror Universe introduced in the 60s episode "Mirror, Mirror," which recurred in several episodes of Deep Space Nine. The Mirror Universe is fun for viewers because in it, all of the Star Trek values are thrown out the airlock, and all of the characters become darkly twisted versions of their familiar selves. (Or the rotten ones become good and compassionate.) "In a Mirror Darkly" shows us how truly bad to the bone the Mirror Universe is, with the tyranny and evil of the Terran Empire going all the way back to first contact with the Vulcans--in which Zefrem Cochrane (James Cromwell) shoots the Vulcan who first sets foot on Earth! The episode that follows takes us to the early days of the Empire and a struggle for control of the technology of the starship Defiant, which has become displaced from the "regular" Trek universe because of the spatial anomalies in the episode "The Tholian Web". The corrupt, scheming, and pathologically insecure Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) of the Mirror Universe wants the power of the Defiant, which will enable him to seize the entire Empire for himself. Archer must negotiate a labyrinth of intrigue, violence, and betrayal (including the torture of a Tholian by a sadistic Dr. Phlox [John Billingsley] and a battle with a CGI-rendered Gorn) before reaping what he only thinks is his final victory. The surprise ending only goes to prove how truly twisted a place the Mirror Universe is. One of the neatest things about these two episodes is that they have their own special opening title, which replaces the truly stupid opening that marred the rest of the series. The stupidity of opening a Star Trek series with a pop-music tune that sounded as if it belonged on AM radio or one of the teenage dramas of the former WB Network was truly insulting and galling, and a disservice to the classy Star Trek legacy. "In a Mirror Darkly" is the only Enterprise episode for which I don't hit the mute or change the channel during the title.

Anyone who thought Star Trek was gone for good after Enterprise ended, doesn't know Star Trek. I thought the franchise needed a rest (remember, between the end of the first series and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there was a good ten-year gap filled only briefly by Star Trek Animated), but Paramount had other ideas. Next Christmas, we're going to have another prequel to the original series, this one a theatrical film apparently dealing with the Enterprise changing hands from Captain Pike to a younger Kirk--and with all of the original players recast with new stars! I'm taking a wait-and-see stance on this, though I'm impressed with the enthusiasm with which it's already being received. (Original Trek players including Nichelle Nichols and Leonard Nimoy have given the production their unqualified blessing.) The thing that fans have been saying since they saved the 1960s series from cancellation--twice--is as true today as it was then: STAR TREK LIVES!

Monday, November 12, 2007


The week before last, I tuned in to Jay Leno on Monday night as I customarily do, looking forward to a new monologue and some new Headlines--and found that Jay had gone into reruns. Why was Jay in reruns now, with Nielsen Sweeps looming? Jay should be all-new now. What was going on?

What I had forgotten was what Jay had been joking about just three nights earlier: The Writers' Guild of America was preparing to strike. The first shows to be affected by the strike, if it happened (make that when it happened now), would be the ones that required fresh material every day, meaning the late-night talk shows and the daytime soaps. Thus, Jay Leno had been driven immediately into reruns, and in several weeks the same fate awaits All My Children, General Hospital, The Days of Our Lives, and the rest of the soap genre, shows that shoot an episode every day about a month in advance of what we see. The scripted, weekly prime time shows have until about January, give or take, before they exhaust their supply of all-new episodes.

And what does that leave for me in terms of entertainment? That mostly leaves DVDs, my iPod--and comic books.

I'm not panicking by any means. I have plenty of DVDs and a portable player. My iPod is well stocked. And as for comic books...actually, this comes at a very interesting time. More and more these days I am struck by the fact that my relationship with comics has changed, and it's never again going to be what it once was.

At the height of my fandom I was a collector of as many as 24 comic book titles a month, give or take for comics that were released bimonthly. I was getting just about all of the regular Marvel Comics line, a small selection of DC books, and a few independents. It was the time when I was most excited and enthusiastic about comics. That time is a period of history now. I'm talking about a time when the Berlin Wall was still up and the Reagan presidency was in its first term. Truly, a period of history!

Fast forward to today, and my comics consumption is down to three monthly Marvel books, with two others that I expect to be picking up again in the next year, and another that I'm looking forward to continuing with at whatever unspecified time it may resume. I had just one monthly DC book, but as of this week it will be two. There's another book from a division of DC, which I get whenever there is a new issue (which is not regularly), and a couple of independents, one of which has had a single issue this year, the other of which I hope to see in 2008. So, that's roughly a possible ten comics--less than half of what I was reading in the days of the Gipper. And that's not counting the miniseries (which may run from 4 to 8 issues) and the trade-paperback and hardcover collections of past material that make of the rest of my comic reading. But those are the comic-book equivalent of TV specials, cable reruns, and boxed DVD sets; they're not regular items.

The reasons for this are many. What it really comes down to is that I don't feel the same way about comics now as I did then; much of my enthusiasm and excitement for the art form--and its content--are gone. Part of it is that comics now just aren't the way they were then. Part of it is that I'm just not the same person today that I was at the time. Comics have changed, and I've changed. We've grown too much apart. As a fan, I used to feel "at home" in the Marvel Comics Universe. It was a place that I believed in, with stories that engaged me, told by storytellers that I trusted with characters that I loved. It doesn't feel like "home" any more today. It feels like an oppressive place, filled with cynicism, ugliness, paranoia, and brutality. Marvel's books were always filled with pragmatism and ambiguity, which used to be called "realism". That's part of why I enjoyed Marvel's books so much better than I did DC's. But they've taken it to such extremes today that they've lost the purity of their concepts and the basic appeal of their characters. Marvel is no longer my "home," and after decades of being at home there, I can't put down roots any place else. DC never did it for me then (I most enjoyed DC's books when they were written and drawn by Marvel talent, and when they "looked," "felt," "sounded," and "thought" something like Marvel books), and I just can't bond with those characters and their world now. Elsewhere in the medium, there's even less for me to hold on to. So, except for reprint collections that gather the material from the past that I loved into hardcover and trade-paperback volumes, I feel like a "homeless" comic book fan. And there may be no going home, in a real sense, ever again.

I expect that in future Blogs I'll be talking more about my state of fandom homelessness, and the feelings behind it. They're very complicated and very deep feelings, because fandom has never been just a hobby for me. A hobby is a pastime; I am not a hobbyist. I have things that the world foists onto me, and things that my life is about. Comics has always been one of those things that my life is about. But in months to come, I expect we'll be returning to this subject. In the meantime, here is my comics reading list (excluding miniseries and reprint collections) as of this month.

FANTASTIC FOUR. Sometimes the actual favorite, always the sentimental favorite, The FF is at "sentimental favorite" status right now. At the beginning of 2008, the new writer/artist team of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch takes over, and Hitch insists on "bringing the FF into the 21st Century" with a gratuitous, needless redesign of the Fantastic Four uniform. Few things in this or any other world are as wrong-headed as bringing a comic book about science "into the 21st Century". The Fantastic Four was a "21st Century" comic book in the mid-1960s, folks, before there even was a 21st Century! This is one of the things about the FF that some people seem completely incapable of understanding, and is such a personal gripe of mine that I should probably devote a "Pet Peeve" to it. And there is every possibility that I will...

THOR. I wish they hadn't dropped The Mighty from the title, and in redesigning Thor's costume I would have kept the bare arms of the classic Jack Kirby version. But right now, Thor is the best thing happening at Marvel. Winning scripts by J. Michael Straczynski and stunning art by Olivier Coipel (whose work I used to loathe with a passion--this is one of the greatest metamorphoses of an artist's style I've ever seen) make Thor one of the best reads on the market. And it'll get even better when the restoration of Asgard is finished and Goldilocks can get back to the business of being a hero again!

Ms. MARVEL. Another solidly entertaining book with beautiful art by Aaron Lopresti, the adventures of the divine Ms. M are worth your time.

Returning in 2008: CAPTAIN AMERICA. I don't think I will ever accept the resurrection of Bucky. Stan Lee decreed that Bucky was morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, postively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead, and he should have been kept that way. (For that matter, so should Captain Marvel I.) But I'm intrigued with the buzz surrounding Cap's "death" (wink, wink, until the movie is ready) and by the arrivial of the mysterious--and beautifully designed--"all-new" Captain America, and I like the art style (Steve Epting, I believe), so I think I'm going to have to get behind the man with the shield again.

Returning in 2008: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Some time in the coming year, John Romita Jr. ends his Spider-Man sabbatical and comes home to the Webhead. By the time he returns, Spider-Man is supposed to be once again a super-hero who engages in battles with costumed, super-powered villains! And I'm not talking alien symbiotes, vampiric chimeras, and monsters from other dimensions, either, but the kind of super-villains that Spidey has traditionally come to blows with! For the past I-can't-tell-you-how-long, Spider-Man--even when John Romita Jr. was drawing his adventures--was simply NO DAMN FUN TO READ! (Except for a brief period under J. Michael Straczynski, which won an Eisner Award.) From what I've been reading of Marvel's plans for Spidey's future, it almost sounds as if the stories are about to go back to being as wonderful as John Jr.'s art! Could it be true? Here's hoping, but if John Jr. is on board, so am I.

Returning--I dare to hope--in 2008: THE YOUNG AVENGERS. Some day, this wonderful book will be back. Till then, I wait.

THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD. Two words: George Perez. As long as he's there, I'm there. 'Nuff said.

WONDER WOMAN. You know, Wonder Woman must be my favorite DC character. Whenever she's written and drawn in a manner that I can enjoy, going back to her 1980s George Perez period, I'm on board for her. As of this month, she'll be written by Gail Simone (whose Superman stories drawn by John Byrne in Action Comics I enjoyed) and drawn once again by Terry and Rachel Dodson, whose previous work with the character I liked a lot. So yes, for this creative team, sign me up.

ASTRO CITY. When there's a new issue, I get it automatically. It never fails to entertain.

NEXUS and THE MOTH. Steve Rude has formed his own company and brand, Rude Dude Productions, to publish his own work with his own characters. As the Dude is one of my favorite artists (and a heck of a nice guy), whenever he's able to release an issue, I'll look forward to getting it.

And who knows? 2008 may hold some more surprises. But the above is the drop in the comic-book ocean that this homeless and thirsty fan is willing to swallow these days. My philosophy of comics has become, "Buy and read only those comics you truly enjoy, and appreciate what is truly beautiful in comics while it's there." And that, at least on the fan side, is my present relationship with the art form.

Monday, November 5, 2007


This year's Halloween has come and gone. As is my custom, I fed the monsters who came to the door--or at least I did until 8 in the evening when Pushing Daisies started; then they were on their own. I had the pleasure of tossing a treat to Spider-Man this year, and I was proud to see one little boy come calling dressed as the Thing from The Fantastic Four. That kid got VIP treatment: TWO Hershey bars where his cohorts got one. The Fantastic Four have privileges at my house.

I don't mind entertaining Trick-or-Treaters. They are the part of Halloween that I still enjoy. I wish I could say the same for the TV programming surrounding the holiday.

It doesn't seem so long ago that Cable channels--in particular American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies--used the latter part of October to trot out all the true, great classics of the horror and science fiction/horror genre, all the scary and creepy movies that I grew up enjoying. My love of classic horror and science fiction films is something that my older siblings, Jack, Mike, and Prinny, taught me. My childhood happened to coincide with the great pop-culture monster craze when the old horror and SF pictures from the 1930s through the 1950s were first sold to television. My big brothers and sister, who appreciated those pictures, would sit me down to watch with them, and I so took them to heart that I immediately needed no prompting to watch them. Soon I was the one gathering them round the TV for them! Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster (please don't refer to the Monster as Frankenstein; the Monster is the Monster, Frankenstein is the Doctor), the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon--they and all the other great old creatures became as important a part of my boyhood as the super-heroes of Marvel Comics.

I was equally riveted when it came to the science fiction pictures that took over from supernatural horror in the 50s, when the Bomb was more scary than the undead. I was both ecstatic and terrified over The Day the Earth Stood Still (which remains one of my great favorite movies) and would literally run from the room and hide when Gort emerged from the spaceship and zapped the Army. That scene still gives me a tingle. I was captivated by the giant ants of Them! and the nightmare of The Incredible Shrinking Man. I loved the shocking scene in The Fly in which David Hedison's wife pulls away his shroud and reveals the grotesque insect head beneath it. I jumped in fright at the menace of The Thing from Another World. And will I ever forget the day I heard Jack singing a strange, creepy song that he said came from a movie about a semi-liquid life form from space that completely absorbed its victims and grew with each one it claimed? It sounded to my little-boy imagination like the most horrifying thing I'd ever heard, and in The Blob, when it finally came round on TV with that silly but unsettling Burt Bacharach theme song, I found the monster that scared me most of all. Today, I still think of the Blob as Hollywood's most fundamentally, viscerally terrifying monster--a thing that can follow you wherever you go, sneak up on you and attack without a sound, and wipe you out without a trace. No kidding; for all the fearsome phantasms that the big screen has ever conjured up, none has ever matched The Blob for its simply and purely frightening concept.

For Halloween, you used to be able to count on all the genuine classics of horror coming round on TV. This year, I couldn't find even one of them. I just find that sad. The Cable movie channels still have horror marathons all right; at least two of them set aside 13-day blocks of programming for them, ending on Halloween night. But you don't see the real classics now. What you get is slasher and psycho-killer movies and zombie flicks and low-grade monster pictures, many of which were made for TV or direct-to-DVD. What you see is a lot of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, heads ripped off before your eyes, blood and internal organs flying across the screen, people getting hacked to pieces, knife-wielding masked men, creatures designed as much to induce nausea as fear, cannibals and sadists and grotesqueries of every description--and not one of them holds up to the genuine, classic monsters of my youth.

I hate what passes for "horror movies" these days. When I go to a horror picture, or watch one on TV, I want to be simply, skillfully, artfully scared. I don't want to be assailed and assaulted with sadism and bodily mutilation and gore. The only "Gore" I can stomach is Al. The great American horror movie is the prime example of the thing that "they don't make like they used to," and I avoid them like the plague. The last one that I can think of that I saw and liked was Signs--a subtle alien-invasion flick that effectively and thoroughly scared you, yet showed you nothing more gruesome than an extraterrestrial's severed finger. Signs is the way to do it--and the way they almost never do it any more.

I can see that I'm just going to have to make it my project to create my own Halloween horror marathon for this time of year, by collecting all the scary movies that I truly love on DVD and setting aside some time during the season to gorge myself on them. My lineup would be the original Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, the original Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, the original Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney, and Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a selection of Mummy and Invisible Man flicks, and this list of essentials from the 1950s:

The Day the Earth Stood Still (which I already have)

The Thing from Another World

It Came from Outer Space

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The War of the Worlds (which I already have)

Forbidden Planet

The Blob


The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Fly

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Plus, I think, Dark City (I have that one already too), Poltergeist, and Signs. That collection should be scary enough for anyone!

Well, that's for the future. For now, there's still Thanksgiving and Christmas for this year to contend with. And I'll be spending part of this year's holidays in my accustomed locale, The Twilight Zone. We'll be chatting up the Zone a lot in December; wait for it.