Friday, May 29, 2009
The Outer Limits is TV’s purest expression of science fiction. It didn’t exist to tell the stories of a particular world or a specific cast of characters. It was a show that you watched for the simple love of science fiction itself. Science fiction was the “star” of The Outer Limits. And I truly did love it. I loved everything about it. I memorized the famous opening takeover of your TV set by the Control Voice (Vic Perrin)--the long version of it! (“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. WE are controlling transmission...”) I loved it for being a show that lavished its attention on monsters: the most grotesque aliens and nightmarish creatures that could be created for television in 1963. I loved the way it reveled in the stuff that science fiction is about: space travel, time travel, extraterrestrial life, exotic and imaginary technologies, the mysteries of the universe--and their possible consequences in the context of humanity. I didn’t just watch the show; I read and studied everything about it that I could get my hands on. And I dearly wished that someone, sometime, would bring it back with new episodes.
The Outer Limits was never syndicated where I live; you had to go to another, bigger city like New York, or get cable TV, to see it. I remember whenever we would go out to Seattle to visit my aunt and uncle who lived there, they did live in a larger city and they did have cable--and they did get The Outer Limits every weeknight at 10. Fond as I was of my relatives, I had an appointment to keep every evening in Seattle. When my father got cable TV (my mother refused to get it for years and years; when she finally did have it put in after she retired, I started searching the house for the pod), I used to go over to his house on Saturday afternoons to watch the show on the New York station that carried it. I remember how my father--who was not a science fiction fan--used to react to the show. I recall in particular how he viewed the episode “The Chameleon,” in which Robert Duvall plays a spy who must be made over into an alien to infiltrate the crew of a craft from another planet. My Dad spent the whole time remarking on “them weirded-up things...those are the most weirded-up things I ever saw."
When at last I got cable for myself, I finally had the show right where I wanted it--or at least the ability to get it without having to go over to Dad’s. Which was a lucky thing, because eventually the New York station dropped it from its afternoon time slots and started running it sporadically at 3 or 4 AM. I actually used to set my alarm clock for that time when I noted it in TV Guide, get up to watch it, and then go back to bed! Seriously! This was in the days just before the prevalence of VCRs in the home; I think there was even one family holiday, before I had the ability to tape it, I actually didn’t come to dinner until I had seen the show. And you have to understand; this wasn’t a frivolous indulgence in a TV show. I wouldn’t have done such a thing for just something on television. I was getting up at 3 or 4 AM or delaying a holiday meal to watch The Outer Limits.
So anyway, it was in the middle of the 1990s that I at last got my wish. At first I was afraid I’d have to wait years for it because I couldn’t spring for a subscription to Showtime, but the network and production company shrewdly opted to recover their production costs by running the episodes of the all-new Outer Limits first on the premium channel, then selling them directly into first-run syndication, meaning that if the Showtime season started in the spring I would be seeing the episodes immediately in the fall. I didn’t mind waiting that long, though I waited with Zantis on my tongue (baited breath). And if you don’t know what a Zanti is, a) what are you doing reading this Blog, and b) look it up!
Now here’s a funny little aside: I used to have a subscription to Omni magazine, which started publication when I was in high school. One early issue of Omni boasted the first publication of the story “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin. It was the tale of what happened when a keeper of interplanetary exotic pets bought specimens of alien insects who had religion and made war just like humans--and he was stupid enough to set himself up as their “god” and then abuse them. When I read this, my initial reaction was, This isn’t just a story. It’s an Outer Limits episode in print. Someone ought to revive the show and do this as the first episode. Well, many years later, Showtime revived the series, and the very first episode was...yep. It wasn’t Martin’s story, which they couldn’t have produced on their million-dollar-per-episode budget, but it was the same concept, right down to the name. When the broadcast version of “Sandkings” premiered, I made a big bowl of hot buttered popcorn and a big mug of hot cocoa with cream that I whipped myself, and slipped into two hours of science fiction Nirvana, taping it simultaneously. Then I rewound the tape and watched the two hours again. This may be why “Sandkings” is the only Outer Limits episode ever to give me a bad dream. As I slept, the little buggers grew to the size of small children and came knocking at my door. But one little nightmare was a small price to pay for a dream come true.
I realize we’ve come to the point of this post by the most roundabout route possible, but here we are at last: Once I finally had The Outer Limits back, I decided I wanted to try to do what I couldn’t do the first time, and write for the show! I began to study the new episodes as minutely as I had the old ones, mentally picking them apart to see their structure and learn their thought process. You see, there was something else that I had written a couple of years earlier that I wanted to try to adapt into an episode of the new series. It was an unsold feature film screenplay called The Elemental, which I had based on my intense dislike of winter in the Northeast. In this picture, I imagined winter as a literal monster, a thing that had come in a meteor and could use the cold and snow and ice as actual weapons to hunt its prey. It could even appear as a bank of frozen, slithering mist with fangs and claws. The story played like “Our Town in New England the Year the Thing Came from Space at Christmas”. (One of my favorite scenes even had a doting father in his living room decorating for Christmas Eve when the creature sucks him up the chimney!)
Realizing that I couldn’t possibly submit a two-hour, multi-million dollar production as an episode of The Outer Limits, I set out to do radical surgery on The Elemental to create a prospective Outer Limits episode called “Ice”. I wrote out entire families of characters, switched the college science professor from supporting character to lead and made him an astrophysicist, retained the woman reporter as his romantic interest, created a different story structure based on the five-act structure that the show was using (and setting up radically different plot twists in the process), and reinvented the creature. The Elemental became the Comet Entity, a living superconductor with electrically charged blood, a being that could live and hunt only in the frigid winter of Massachusetts where its frozen cocoon fell from space. I developed this from the way the new Outer Limits used science in its stories. I paid particular attention to “If These Walls Could Talk,” in which a "haunted house" has been permeated with a space enzyme from a meteor, which changes the inanimate matter in the house so that it acts as if it’s alive and devours people; and “Under the Bed,” which reveals that the Bogey Man is a real creature that does snatch and eat children, but can’t live in the daylight because the Sun will polymerize and petrify its skin--both stories of extremely non-human physiology. (The “chandelier grabbing the police officer” scene in “If These Walls Could Talk” is in the same spirit as the “Dad sucked up the chimney” scene in The Elemental, though I wrote mine first!)
Completing the script for “Ice,” I set out to try to get it into the hands of the producers of the show. And here I encountered the great hurdle that looms before everyone who has ever tried to get anyone in Hollywood to read anything they’ve written: The Outer Limits didn’t accept scripts from people not represented by agents. So the gates of my dream show were blocked by two barricades: that of getting an agent to want to read “Ice,” and then getting it from agent to producer. And agents, like everyone else in the world, say they want to give someone a chance and then won’t do it. They talk a good game about being on the lookout for new talent, but when it comes their way it’s “Hit the bricks, Charlie.” My courting of both the show and the people who could get me into it quickly proved futile. So here I was with “The Teleplay Formerly Known as a Screenplay,” but what was I going to do with it?
It’s here that I’m going to present another J.A. FLUDD FACTOID, the first we’ve had in quite a while. Our new Factoid is, I hate standing in lines! Lines at cinemas, lines at the Post Office--and lines at the supermarket, they bore the hell out of me! I will take a book with me, or browse on my iPhone and check my E-mail as I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. Or, at the market, I’ll pick up a magazine for the express purpose to stop myself being bored in the checkout line. So it was that one fateful afternoon at the market, I grabbed a copy of the now-defunct Star Trek Communicator magazine to stave off the tedium. And here was where I found something very interesting.
The Communicator magazine had an article on a Screenwriting Internship Program offered by the Writers Guild of America, by which anyone interested in writing for television could submit a resume and a writing sample appropriate to the show where he wanted to intern. If you wanted to intern on a sitcom, you sent in a half-hour sitcom script. If you wanted to intern on a dramatic series, you submitted an hour-long dramatic script or a two-hour, dramatic feature film or Movie of the Week script. It didn’t have to be a script for exactly the show that the would-be intern was approaching, just a script of the same basic genre and form. If the show liked your sample, you were in for six weeks, paid! You can see the wheels turning now, can’t you?
The article also brought up something that I had forgotten. Star Trek was unique in all of Hollywood as the only institution in the entertainment world that would look at any script that a would-be writer sent them, whether it was agented or not. This was partly because Star Trek has always had a unique relationship with the fans whose letter-writing campaigns saved it from cancellation twice and transformed the show into a de facto religion with conventions as their High Mass. Most of the deluge of scripts came from people who had the proprietary interest in Trek that is typical of fans. It was also partly because Star Trek had a great hunger for material and was so eager to find the next great idea for an episode that it would consider the submissions of just about anyone. It was by far the easiest place in Hollywood to reach to make your “pitch” of a story or script.
I dared to think the thought. I could easily create a suitable resume from the one that I had at the time. And I just happened to have an hour-long dramatic script readily at hand, the one I wrote for The Outer Limits. I rolled the idea around in my head for a while. I mentioned it to my friend Brian after reading “Ice” to him and some other friends (one of whom was properly scared, so I knew I had done my job), and he said, “Yeah, you should go ahead and do that.” So I made two copies of a resume and two copies of “Ice”. I wrote two cover letters. I stuffed two envelopes. And I mailed them to Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles, one to the Story Editor of Deep Space Nine and one to the Story Editor of Voyager--the two Trek shows that were then on the air. And through the spring and the summer, I waited.
Then, one August afternoon, just as I was getting in the door from the temporary job I was doing at the time, I heard the phone ring upstairs. I heard the machine answer it. And I heard a voice calling from three thousand miles to the southwest.
And I made the maddest dash up the stairs I’ve ever made in my life.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Monday, May 11, 2009
The answer is a resounding YES. Yes, this is Star Trek. The intellectual and philosophical parts of Gene Roddenberry’s creation have been dialed down somewhat, but the characterizations along with the action have been cranked up, and the universe to which they belong has been reimagined without violating anything that went before. Abrams and company have shrewdly used the old Star Trek to create an all-new one. This, of course, bears some explanation.
The very shrewd and clever thing that Abrams and his fellows have done has been to use perhaps the most beloved of all Trek characters to create an all-new, alternate Star Trek universe; a universe that changes nothing we know, but starts the whole thing over and makes it something fresh and incredibly exciting. Under the Many Worlds Theory of quantum physics, time travel into the past cannot change history; whatever you do in the past only causes a new reality with a different history to peel off the history from which you came. This is what happens when Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) travels back in time to try to prevent the destruction of the planet Romulus in a supernova explosion. (Star Trek: The Next Generation left Spock behind the Romulan Neutral Zone, trying to effect the “reunification” of Romulus and Vulcan.) A Romulan leader named Nero (Eric Bana) is accidentally swept along with him and holds Spock responsible for Romulus’s fate. While Spock and Vulcan itself (and ultimately all Federation planets) are Nero’s actual targets, the first to feel his wrath is the 23rd-Century Federation Starship Kelvin, whose acting Captain, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), lays down his life in a failed attempt to stop Nero.
Just as Kirk is dying, his son James Tiberius is being born! This boy will grow up to be played by the excruciatingly beautiful Chris Pine. (Seriously, Pine will have you saying “William Shatner Who?”) This new Kirk will one day command a different but superficially familiar Starship Enterprise with reincarnations of the same crew we know from the 1960s series, in a reality where Spock’s time travel will have acted like a cue ball hitting the rest of the balls on the pool table in startling new directions. Even the familiar things, the things that Trekkers know and revere, will have new twists and wrinkles. (The new Enterprise Bridge has been amusingly compared to an Apple Computer store!) And it will be incredibly fun to watch!
Everything we know about our beloved crew has been kept intact, with new details added that were not in any of the previous TV episodes or films, and some new details created. Nichelle Nichols and Gene Roddenberry had long agreed that Uhura’s first name was Nyota, but this never made it into either the TV or film series. It’s in this picture, where it comes out in the midst of one of those billiard-ball ricochets of character. (We’ll get to that in a moment.) Likewise we learn the origin of Leonard McCoy’s (Karl Urban) nickname. He’s called Bones because his ex-wife “took the whole planet in the divorce settlement,” leaving him “nothing but the bones”. Ingenious, and very much in character.
Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Christopher Pike (originally the late, gorgeous Jeffrey Hunter, played here by Bruce Greenwood), is also in the story, and as in established canon, Spock is already serving with Pike before Kirk arrives. Our new, young Spock, of course, is Zachary Quinto (the evil Sylar from Heroes), and notwithstanding Chris Pine as Kirk, it is Quinto who inhabits his character most perfectly. The way Quinto captures Spock is just uncanny, as if Spock were a mold into which Quinto had been poured. All the stuff we know about Spock is here: his parents, Sarek of Vulcan (Ben Cross in a performance that the late Mark Lenard would have applauded) and the terrestrial Amanda Grayson (Winona Ryder), the cruelty of Spock’s classmates over his half-human heritage, and the conflict of Spock choosing Starfleet over the Vulcan Science Academy. I’m only surprised they didn’t find a way to work in Spock’s pet sehlat!
One of the most delicious twists of character is that Spock and Kirk start out as foes. Why? Remember the Kobayashi Maru Test from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the “no-win” scenario that Kirk reprogrammed to his advantage? Three guesses who turns out to have written that test! When Spock, the author of the scenario, calls Kirk out for cheating, the future best friends start out as adversaries! And things only get more interesting from there.
How interesting does it get? How about this: Nero succeeds in destroying the planet Vulcan! Get this now: Vulcan, the planet that along with Earth is the cornerstone of the United Federation of Planets, is destroyed! And there’s no time travel trick to bring it back; Vulcan is annihilated for good, with almost its entire population. Spock succeeds in rescuing his father from the artificial singularity that Nero creates at the planet’s core, but...Amanda dies! Spock’s mother--gone! And when Spock, in his Vulcan way, is grieving, who do you think is there to comfort him? Uhura, that’s who! Yes--Uhura (Zoe Saldana), in scenes that show us in no uncertain terms that the half-Vulcan and the Swahili Communications Officer (who is now also an interplanetary linguist) are lovers! Spock and Uhura--lovers! We have here a Spock who seems able to mate at will and not have to wait for his pon farr! And if all that isn’t enough to send your mind reeling, you must have been through the Kohlinahr!
All of this comes on the heels of Kirk’s fruitless attempts to hit on Uhura, who won’t tell him her first name when he’s flirting with her. (The interstellar tomcat is still on the job; as always he’ll try to bed anything female and humanoid. One of my greatest misgivings came when I looked at the TV promos and thought Kirk was sleeping with Uhura; I truly did not like the idea of her becoming another notch on his phaser, and I’m glad it turned out not to be so. Kirk is instead bedding Uhura’s Starfleet Academy roommate, who is one of those legendary green-skinned Orion women.) Kirk is truly nonplussed when he discovers that Uhura prefers Spock, and it is Spock, not Kirk, to whom she tells her first name, Nyota. This, I appreciated.
All of the above reminds me of the time I saw Nichelle Nichols in person when I was fresh out of the closet. Nichelle talked about how she had helped to create the character of Uhura. She said that Spock was Uhura’s mentor and the person to whom she looked as the kind of Starfleet officer she wanted to be. You’ll remember also, if you’re a good Trekker, that in the early episodes we saw that Uhura was the only person on the ship (besides Kirk and McCoy) who could confront Spock when she thought he was wrong, or tease him, and get away with it. (See “The Man Trap” and “Charlie X”.) For this film, they’ve taken that relationship, which was never fully explored on the show, and ratcheted it up as far as it could go. It’s another thing I applaud.
Playing with the Star Trek legend without violating it is what this movie is all about. (Well, except for the fact that Chekov [Anton Yelchin] is there in this first voyage; I’m sorry, no matter what Khan said, Chekov did not start until the beginning of Season 2.) Kirk has stolen aboard the ship with Bones’s help. Captain Pike gives Kirk a field commission and sends him on an away mission with Mr. Sulu (John Cho), then is captured by Nero, leaving Spock in charge. Sulu engages in swordplay worthy of George Takei’s shirtless turn in “The Naked Time”. Kirk challenges Spock, and Spock maroons him on the same planet where Nero has left the elder “Spock Prime” (Nimoy) to watch helplessly as Vulcan is destroyed. Spock Prime convinces Kirk to use young Spock’s grief to remove him from command and take his place--setting up what will be arguably the most important relationship of both their lives, and further catalyzing the rebirth of Star Trek. Oh, and the desolate ice planet is also where Kirk encounters his future Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg). The way Scotty gets himself and Kirk to the Enterprise--Spock gives Scotty a formula for transwarp beaming that Scotty himself will invent in the future--harks back to the “transparent aluminum” plot point in Star Trek: The Voyage Home. As in their intricate work on Lost, Abrams and company have worked out every piece of an elaborate puzzle.
The action and space-battle sequences are not the kinds of sequences you remember from previous Trek TV shows and films. The cinematography and effects have been updated, and the pacing has been stepped up. (In fact, if I have any small critique of the picture, it is that some of the action goes by too fast. Some of the editing seems to have been done for the benefit of people with short attention spans.) Parts of it actually remind me of the space-battle sequences in the revival of Battlestar Galactica; they are of a similar quality. But it’s all just riveting to watch.
The plot keeps hitting all the right notes. After the defeat of Nero and the rescue of Pike (whose ordeal puts him in a wheelchair, a nod to “The Menagerie”), there is a sequence at Starfleet Command where Kirk is awarded command of the Enterprise, which reminds me of the epilogue of the aforementioned The Voyage Home. For a man who started out as more of a devotee of Star Wars than Trek, J.J. Abrams has come around to a sure mastery of, and appreciation for, Gene Roddenberry’s universe.
In the later years of his life, Gene Roddenberry spoke of times in the future when people would take Star Trek and reinvent it, finding new ways of doing it that would be as enthusiastically embraced as the work that he and his peers did. He said that the new work would take its place in fans’ hearts and be accepted as the true, legitimate Star Trek. (There have been stories to the effect that in the office of Rick Berman, the Executive Producer to whom Gene personally turned over the franchise, there was a bust of Gene on which Berman and company had put a blindfold and a pair of earmuffs in a symbolic gesture. When I was at Star Trek--a story that will be our subject for the next several weeks--I never went into Berman’s office and never saw the bust, but I have every belief that it was there.) In part, I’m sure, Gene was speaking from the awareness that he’d soon be leaving this world and that it was time to pass the Trek heritage to other hands. But as of this weekend, he seems to have been anticipating what was unveiled in cinemas this weekend.
My skepticism about this film was short-lived. I think it was well and truly dead before the picture was half over. My question was, “Is this Star Trek?” What I meant to ask was whether this film would be an attempt to replace the Star Trek history and heritage we know with something new, a film that would be Star Trek in name only, which would lack the vision of the future and the deeply meaningful set of values that informed Gene Roddenberry’s creation. I think that if you go looking for the vision and the values, you’ll find them, because Gene invested them in the characters. And as for the integrity of the Star Trek universe as we’ve known it for the past 43 years, it too is still intact. That world absolutely still exists; nothing has been done to erase it. It lives in five live-action series, the animated show, and the previous ten movies. It hasn’t been taken away. What we’ve been given is a story that sends one character from that universe into the past and makes him the creator of a new Star Trek universe where the same characters, stories, and ideas we’ve loved so well are free to take on exciting new forms. It is no more a violation of the Trek legacy than The Next Generation was. And yes, it definitely is Star Trek. See it and love it. I’m seeing it again in the cinema at least once, and I’m already on board for the DVD.
Monday, May 4, 2009
It’s ironic because I’ve never been anywhere near the book professionally, except for the long-winded and verbose lead article (yes, even then, all those years ago) that I wrote for the magazine The Fantastic Four Chronicles published by FantaCo Enterprises. (My friend Roger has documented the whole saga of the Albany, NY comic book shop, FantaCo, which was one of the country’s most respected comic stores, on his Blog.) Well, that and my extensive contributions to the sadly defunct FF Plaza Website once owned and operated by my online pal Sean Kleefeld. It was for many years my ambition to write and draw the most conceptually perfect comic book ever created, an ambition that never materialized. (And it’s not because I never asked for a chance to work for the large comic book company to which The Fantastic Four belongs, but this is not a subject I care to broach right now.) Still and all, I do have a certain reputation in fan circles such that I am known as “The Fantastic Four Guy,” or something to that effect. There are fans who know me, who associate me with The FF because as a fan of comics it was always my most important devotion. We all have our devotions; The FF has been one of mine.
A couple of times, that devotion has served me in good stead. What we’re now going to share is some of my favorite stories about the Fantastic Four and me.
You’ll remember that about four years ago there was a Fantastic Four movie. (We touched on its sequel a couple of weeks ago.) You’ll probably also remember that more than ten years before that, there was going to be another, different Fantastic Four movie. Actually, that film was produced, but as any good fan will tell you, it was never released. The original Fantastic Four movie was directed by Roger Corman, the master of B movies. It was made on an excruciatingly low budget (and it shows!) and then shelved, never to be screened at a cinema. This is because the studio that produced it was going to lose its rights to the property, and it was deemed better to rush production on an embarrassing piece of rubbish that no one would ever see (almost, but wait for it) than to have spent all that money and not shot a frame of film.
Now, as soon as the idea of adapting Marvel comic books into motion pictures was put on the table, the first thing that everyone wanted to see, including Marvel itself, was a cinematic Fantastic Four. The FF is, of course, the original Marvel comic book, without which none of the others would have happened. But the technology to do a picture about four characters who all have extreme body-change powers was not really ready for a good many years. (Well, they could have done Sue Storm; I mean, Hollywood has been doing invisibility since Claude Rains and the Invisible Man pictures in the 1930s. But Reed and the Torch and the Thing were another matter.) They had to do the X-Men and Spider-Man and Daredevil and the Hulk before they could get to The FF. Still, the desire to see the super-powered Richards family live on screen persisted. And when that Roger Corman movie was finished, it didn’t matter that it was shelved and vaulted, and it didn’t matter that it was a piece of embarrassing, low-budget rubbish. People wanted to see it anyway.
And on such desires the clandestine enterprise of bootleg movies is built.
Visit any comic book or science fiction convention, and many comic book stores, and you can find all kinds of things that Hollywood didn’t want you to see and studios and producers don’t want you to have. But that doesn’t matter; people will still make copies of them, and they’ll happily sell them to you--usually. There was one remarkable exception, and it occurred back in the days of VHS tapes (can you believe they’re becoming obsolete now?) when I decided that no matter how bad it was, I just had to see that Roger Corman Fantastic Four picture. And I knew where I could conveniently lay my hands on a copy. They had it at one of the comic book shops in town, just a few blocks from where I live. (Sadly, this and almost all of our other comic shops in Albany are gone, casualties of the industry and collector excesses of the 1990s. Only Earthworld, which I’ve used since 1983, remains.) One fine spring day, I decided I was going to go over to the store, whose name I’ll withhold, and get it. I called ahead first to make sure I could get a copy when I got there.
I’ll also withhold the name of the gentlemen I spoke to, one of the proprietors of the store. I’ll call him Pete. Anyway, I got Pete on the phone and told him what I was looking for. Pete disavowed any knowledge of the item in question. “Bootleg video of the Fantastic Four movie? I don’t know what you mean.” Bootleg movies are contraband, after all. After a bit of further dancing around the subject, it occurred to me to mention who I am. “This is Joe Fludd.” And guess what: Pete’s reply was something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, we have that.”
You see what happened there? Old Pete wasn’t about to trust just anyone with the knowledge that he was selling bootleg FF videos. It took me establishing that I wasn’t just anyone to get him to come across. That is what a reputation in the fan community will get you!
So, over to the store I went, and that was when an amazing and rare tableau unfolded, something that I don’t expect will ever happen to me--or, for that matter, to you--again. I was ready to cough up my $16 to buy this FF video. But first, Pete decided he wanted to show me a little bit of it, to let me see what I was getting. That was fair. That was reasonable. But the extraordinary thing was his motive for doing so. Pete wanted me to make sure I wanted to make this purchase. “Do you really want this? Look at this; do you really want it?” And as I watched an excerpt from this unbelievably cheap, badly written picture in which even the costumes looked as if they’d be laughed out of a convention masquerade, I realized that a comic book dealer was trying to talk me out of buying something. And more, it was working!
Pete knew who I was, and I believe he must have known what my relationship with the Fantastic Four was. And he didn’t want to take my money for this movie. He was giving up $16 in profits--because it was me! I thanked him for his consideration, and walked out of his store empty handed. In hindsight, I quickly realized the honor I had just been given, how highly someone had thought of me. If I had been anyone else, I have no doubt old Pete would have bagged my $16 that day. How often does a comic book dealer think enough of anyone to sacrifice profit for him? All these years later, I remember that experience and the very singular compliment that had been given me.
More recently, 20th Century Fox filmed The Fantastic Four with a budget larger than Roger Corman’s by many orders of magnitude. This one actually was released, of course, and was credited with bringing Hollywood out of a box-office slump. Its projected opening weekend was about $30 million and it raked in almost $60 million in its first three days. As that opening weekend approached, The Gazette, the newspaper of Schenectady, our neighboring city, had a reporter who knew The FF doing a feature on it. (By the way, Spider-Man fans take note: According to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Dr. Octopus was born in Schenectady.) The reporter wanted to talk to a local Fantastic Four fan to get insights from someone in the know about the characters and their history. He called around looking for a fan to interview. When he called Earthworld, my dealer of many years, JC Glindmyer, evidently told him, “Oh yeah, buddy, I’ve got your Fantastic Four fan right here.” And in short order, JC had set me up to chat with this reporter.
Well, the long and short of that story was that I got myself some ink in the paper, and they even sent a photographer to my house to get some shots of me with some FF memorabilia. The Features section of The Gazette had a great big picture of me posing with my Fantastic Four Mini Statues (which I had acquired by taking great pains to track them down from three different Web stores including Midtown Comics in Manhattan, an effort and expense I would not have gone through for any other characters in comics but the Fantastic Four). I got quotes in the article (as did Kleefeld, whom the reporter also called), and everyone who saw the piece was duly impressed.
Want to hear something really ironic? When I first saw the Fantastic Four, I didn’t even like them! I was first exposed to them through television; they were on Saturday mornings before Spider-Man, and I just didn’t get it. Why did three of them wear the same costume? Why was one of them made of orange bricks? What was with all the gadgets and machinery? What kind of super-heroes were they supposed to be? I didn’t realize at first that a) The Fantastic Four is a comic book about science (in its stylized comic-book way), and was actually the comic book most after my own heart, since being A Scientist was the first thing I ever wanted to do; and b) The Fantastic Four is the model for all other Marvel comic books and the reason why there is a Spider-Man and a Hulk and an Iron Man and so forth. Once I actually sat down and watched it (after all, it was on before Spider-Man and I was up anyway), I at once realized there was nothing cooler around.
Nothing, that is, except for the comic book itself, to which I soon got my first exposure. My first issue was FF #62, “And One Shall Save Him!”--part of the very height of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s collaboration. I’m lately having the great pleasure of reading all of the Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four stories in hardcover from the beginning (thank you, Marvel Masterworks), and just last night I read #62 again. Astrophysics likes to talk about the echoes and afterglow of the Big Bang that still permeate the universe. Every time I look at “And One Shall Save Him!” I relive a part of the near-religious experience that I had when I read the actual Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four for the first time. (In a nutshell, this is the story of Reed Richards being trapped in the Negative Zone; the Torch and his girlfriend Crystal being reunited after months of separation; and Triton, Crystal’s cousin, rescuing Reed, but the two of them being followed back to Earth by the deadly Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst. Classic stuff!) It remains a very special book for me.
As I’ve bandied about before, my relationship with the FF, with Marvel, and with comics as a medium has changed today. I can’t even read the book that Marvel is calling The Fantastic Four any more. But I’m loving the trip I’m taking now through the stories I’ve always loved best. To quote an old song, “Ain’t nothing like the real Thing, baby." And Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl/Woman, and the Human Torch, either. Somewhere in my heart, the true Fantastic Four in its best and rightful style will always live.