Monday, October 30, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 30 - 1996

One blog post a month? (just about) Okay, it's not what I want, but I guess it will have to do for now. I'll keep plugging away, hoping that other situations will improve to give me some time back and that I still have a few readers left...

So 1996 was pretty important for me, as my first daughter was born in March of this year. It's hard to believe that as I sit here writing now, she is 21 years old , has just obtained a first class honours degree in History and Literature and has just started a Masters degree in Shakespeare studies. She obviously doesn't get that intelligence from me! There have been lots of highs and lows in our relationship over the last two decades, especially after her mum and I got divorced and we both married other people, but I think we have come out of it okay. I'm immensely proud of all she has accomplished. So this post is dedicated to Hannah, with love.

1996:

The trivia:
  • A 21-year old man walked into radio station Star FM in Wanganui, New Zealand and proceeded to take the station manager hostage with what was believed to be an explosive device. His one and only demand was that the station play "Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie" on repeat for the next twelve hours. Before the song could be played for the first time, local police retook the station and arrested the poor guy.
  • When the movie "The Rock" (of which more later) had it's glitzy star-studded premiere, it was held at the former prison on the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. In true James Bond style, windsurfer Jeff Bunch sailed to the island wearing a wing-collar tuxedo and bow tie under his wetsuit.  He landed on the north east side of the island, climbed over the edge and snuck into the celebrity party. He later claimed to have already had a cocktail with star Sean Connery before being captured by park rangers and escorted off the premises.
  • An experienced model enthusiast was flying his self built remote controlled plane at the registered site in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland. After a few successful short flights, he suddenly lost all control and the plane flew off into the distance in a north east direction, supposedly to crash. However after five miles, the model aircraft ran out of fuel and glided to a safe stop - on the taxi-way of runway 28 at Dublin International Airport.               

The memory:

Quake

So it's no secret that I've always liked video games. I have vague memories of playing a version of the classic text game "Collosal Cave"  on a massive office machine sometimes in the late 1970s (how or why I got to see this is lost to my fading brain cells),  so I guess my love for the form grew from there. Whether it's the simplicity of "Pong", the 48k wonder of "Knight Lore" on the ZX Spectrum, the rip-off platform fun of "Great Giana Sisters" on the Commodore 64 or the fast paced spinball of "Sonic The Hedgehog" on the Sega Megadrive - I've played hundreds of action, puzzle, driving, shooting, platform and adventure games in my life - although I've managed to fully complete only a mere few of those (I said I enjoyed the games, not that I was any good at them!).


But all of those games were on simple "home computers" (which you could program as well), or early games consoles. When I first started work after leaving school, business machines were huge things that look up a whole room or "PC's" were standalone boxes that ran MS-DOS. I actually wrote the menu screen for our first office PC in BASIC. We didn't get Windows until I'd been there several years.

It was 1995 before prices dropped enough that I could afford to get a home PC - running the brand new Windows 95 operating system with it's (for then) flashy interface. I started buying "PC Zone" magazine for the reviews of new games and the cover-mounted CD-ROM full of demos and previews. Some of the first games I bought for the new machine that sat proudly in the spare bedroom were "Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time" and "Star Trek: A Final Unity" - more cerebral, thinking games than fast-paced action. I was aware of the burgeoning genre of first-person shooters pioneered by Wolfenstein 3D" and "Doom" (although I didn't get to play those two until much later). But then came "Duke Nukem 3D" and the demo I installed made me go out and buy the full game almost straight away  - and I completed it too, after much effort (and maybe a little use of the "god" mode to figure out difficult areas first...).

So by the time iD Software's highly anticipated "Quake" arrived, I thought I was pretty up to speed with how these shooting games worked. What I didn't anticipate was just how damn addictive they could be...


The core conceit of "Quake" main storyline seems fairly basic by today's' standards, but back then the combination of  Lovecraftian and satanic imagery plus futuristic technology in a gothic / medieval setting was a heady one  - building on the successes of "Doom" but with a far stronger sense of dread  and lurking horror. The single-player campaign consists of 30 separate levels (several of which are secret) across four 'episodes' - which are accessed through a teleporter known as a "Slipgate". Exploring the labyrinthine passages and hidden rooms requires accessing particular switches or keys and various other portals are also discoverable over the course of the game. The aim is to fight through each of the levels, killing or avoiding the various enemies, and collect four magic runes. These give the player access to the final level and the chance to defeat the demonic presence known as Shib-Niggurath.

The antagonists in "Quake" range from the merely deadly to the truly horrific. Grunts, Zombies, Knights, Enforcers and Ogres are recognisably almost-human, but a Fiend is a mass of teeth and razor-sharp claws, while a Vore is a spider-esque hybrid monstrosity. Then there is the Shambler with it's blood-stained fur, ripping fangs and the ability to fling bolts of electricity. Any one of these creatures appearing suddenly around a dark corner (especially if, like me you played with the lights off or really low) was guaranteed to make a little bit of wee come out...


Sure, it's true that the levels are almost always the same twenty shades of dirty brown colour and at times it could be incredibly frustrating to have to restart yet again when a stray claw took your last nugget of life energy, but the excellent level design and the sheer "oh-go-on-then-I know-it's-2am-but-just-one-more-go" playability of  it meant that I spent *way* too many hours trying to uncover every secret and defeat every enemy. I hadn't been this addicted to a game since the days of the ZX Spectrum.

But I have to make an admission here. Most of my time spent on "Quake" was not in when it first came out. Oh sure, I played the demo and liked what I saw an awful lot - and I picked up a full copy when the price dropped somewhat, but in 1996 I was far too busy with firstly moving house and then coming to terms with the arrival of my first daughter eleven weeks earlier than expected, along with the special care that she needed. After that there were a series of personal circumstances which put a huge strain on the increasingly difficult relationship with my wife. I won't bore you with those problems here, but suffice it to say that despite the joy of my second daughter being born in late 1998, my wife and I ended up sadly separating for good in February of 1999.

So then I found myself living on the outskirts of London with my daughters 180 miles away and mostly only able to see them at weekends (my job was still in London you see and I couldn't afford to move where they now lived). I had almost no free cash and I was on my own much of the time during the week, so I turned to films and television and video games for entertainment. I pulled out that CD of "Quake" and booted up the PC. Sadly I couldn't enjoy any of the innovative multiplayer aspects of the game - my prehistoric dial-up internet connection was not capable of anything like that - so I just satisfied myself with trying to defeat the game on every difficult setting (yes even "Nightmare", which was frankly, impossible). And then I discovered "mods"...

The gameplay of "Quake" could be changed by altering the graphics and audio, using the "QuakeC" programming language. At the start this meant just small fixes and patches and the odd new enemy, but soon fans were creating whole new versions of the game that were very different from the original. The first major mods I read about in the PC magazines was "Team Fortress", but being as it was multiplayer, it was off limits to me. Of far more interest were the multitude of single player levels that sprung up. The small size of these files meant that I could log on, download it (relatively) quickly and then log off. I seem to recall that some mods were also given away on cover mounted CDs. For me this took the game to a whole other level, as I was no longer restricted to the 30 maps that came with the installation disc (yes I know there were a couple of "expansion packs" added later, but for some reason lost to the mists of time I never got round to them).

As internet speeds became cheaper, faster and more reliable, my "Quake" mod interest kept growing. I must have played or tried out dozens upon dozens of new levels. Someone invented "AirQuake" where you were now flying around the skies of QuakeWorld engaged in bombing runs or driving a tank to take down your enemies in the air. Then there was "QuakeRally" which turned things into a medieval version of a car race. "AlienQuake" had me stalking the corridors of the Nostromo facing off against Facehuggers and Xenomorphs. "FantasyQuake" replaced guns and bullets with swords and bows and arrows."Horrorshow" added Jason Voorhees and the ability to inhabit the body of Leatherface. The sky was truly the limit.



Between games of "Quake" and sessions on my beloved Nintendo 64, I whiled away the somewhat lonely evenings after work (including through that first cold winter when the central heating broke down and I couldn't afford to repair it). I persevered with getting my life back in order and clearing my debts. I made new friends and built new relationships, but I kept returning to that first version of  "Quake" to see each new modification. Like the expansion packs I mentioned earlier, I never did progress to "Quake II" or "Quake III Arena", but that was okay. Eventually things improved and in 2001 I met the wonderful woman that would become my second (and hopefully final!) wife and my nights of gaming gradually slowed to a crawl.

As part of writing this piece over the last few weeks, I dug out my dusty copy of the game from storage in the loft and after a bit of fiddling around getting the antique DOS installer to work, pressed "Single Player" on my first game of "Quake " in probably fifteen years. As I moved around that first level, the sound of collecting the backpacks and bullets dropped by the enemies and the grunt of the main character brought all the memories flooding back. Compared to today's standards, it's slow and clunky and incredibly linear but there's still a huge amount of playability and before I knew it an hour had gone past.  It's a great game and while I'd quite like to forget certain other aspects of my life in the mid to late 90s, this is one that I'm quite happy to recall. Even if I am now going to dream about running through dank corridors being snarled at by a rabid Shambler...




Honourable mentions:
  • Kingdom Come - I mentioned this landmark comic mini series in my post for 1995, but it's first publication here is worth a more detailed look. Mark Waid and co-writer / artist Alex Ross envisioned the future of the DC universe where the heroes of the present day have abandoned their roles after the rise and popularity of  second and third generation meta-humans who fight more for the fun of it than to protect the innocent and who care nothing for the effects of their destructive behavior. Worst of these is Magog who murders the Joker and manages to turn the American Midwest into a radioactive wasteland, killing millions while in pursuit of the villain The Parasite. Coaxed back into action by Wonder Woman, Superman reforms the Justice League, but finds himself and his allies caught in the midst of a war with Batman and his team of "Outsiders", Lex Luthor and his Mankind Liberation Front and the threat of nuclear destruction. Not to mention a brainwashed Captain Marvel. But trust me it's far more complex and fascinating than that short summary makes it sound.


  • The artwork from Alex Ross is simply stunning, painted in such a lush hyper-realistic style that it's almost like looking at excerpts from a film, but still with the comic book sensibilities that make it flow naturally from panel to panel. It's well known that he uses real life models, but this is no tracing of photos, just a way of helping him get the right angle or pose or expression - and hell does it pay off. Every frame is packed with detail and some of the seemingly throwaway character designs have been used in subsequent years as templates for the current DC universe. In fact "Kingdom Come" itself has been referenced or used significantly in other stories in the last twenty-one years - it's that important an event in DC's history.


  • The Cable Guy - Made when Jim Carrey was at the height of his first wave of popularity this psychological comedy thriller showed that the actor could also do dark and twisted characters. Matthew Broderick plays straight man as Steven, recently split with his girl friend and on his own in a new apartment. When he slips the cable installer an extra $50 for free premium channels, what he doesn't expect is to be followed around by a guy who at first appears to just be a social misfit but then turns out to be genuinely crazy. I love "Ace Ventura", but if you asked me to choose one Carrey comedy, this would be at the top of the list. Highlights are the karaoke performance of "Somebody to Love" and of course the fight at the 'Medieval Times' theme restaurant that turns into a full on recreation of the classic Kirk / Spock battle from Star Trek's "Amok Time", complete with episode specific weapons and music. This really is an overlooked film.

  • Duke Nukem 3D - I mentioned this above. "Quake" might have been the first-person shooter I played the most, but "Duke Nukem 3D" was the one I played first. There's some storyline about Earth being invaded in the 21st Century, but that didn't really matter. What was important was running through a variety of environments collecting objects and weaponry while blasting as many of the hideous alien scum as possible - all while Duke himself gave a string of cheesy one liners in that deep gruff voice that were worthy of Arnie himself. The degree of interactivity with the areas you stalked through along with the clever level design and the satire of pop culture made it enormous fun to play. I'm getting flashbacks to the movie theatre level right now. It's fair to say that this was one of the most important video games of all time and all the FPS games since owe a debt to The Duke. Hail to the King, baby !


  • Hamlet - I like a good "Hamlet". I must have seen a dozen or more different versions in my life, either on stage or screen. Some were amateur productions with minimal sets. Some had big name stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant or Mel Gibson. Sometimes the main story is only a sideline, such as in "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead". I've even seen the half-hour long animation. But there is only one film version which contains every single word of Shakespeare's original text - and that's the one written, directed and starring the marvelous Kenneth Branagh. I'd been a fan of Ken ever since his 1989 version of "Henry V" and really rated him as someone who wanted to bring Shakespeare back to a mass audience.  Here he updates the setting of the play to the 19th Century, adds flashbacks that visual information and imbues the whole production with an epic style by filming it in 70mm (the last to do so until 2012) and using lots of long single takes for numerous scenes. He is helped by a wealth of famous actors in small and large roles - Derek Jacobi (whose own BBC version is almost as long), Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Kate Winslet, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, John Gielgud, Judi Dench - the list goes on and on. It's sumptuous, layered and incredibly powerful. I adore it.


  • Fun Song Factory - No don't click away from the page. There is a good reason for this 90s children's program being here  - and you have probably already guessed that it's to do with daughter number one. I can't remember where it came from but somehow we ended up with a double cassette pack of the first two "Fun Song Factory" shows - the second of which was recorded in 1996, hence how I have managed to squeeze it into this post, even though the VHS releases weren't until 1998. Performed in front of a live audience of kids, mums and dads by Iain Lauchlan, Sarah Davison, Michelle Durler and kids favourite, the unbelievable cheerful Dave Benson Philips, the shows were full of pre-school favourite songs and nursery rhymes such as "The Wheels on the Bus" and "The Grand Old Duke of York" - plus inexplicably, The Beatles "Yellow Submarine". To say that Hannah loved these shows as a toddler was an understatement, and they became a permanent accompaniment to our lives in those first few years. Even now I just have to hear "I am the Music Man" and I can picture her sitting in the living room totally captivated by the screen. Now before you think badly of us, we didn't use the show as a surrogate babysitter (well, maybe only a couple of times when we needed to urgently get things done) - this was a shared experience and it's one of my fondest memories of those years with my daughter, even if around her other things in my life were...extremely challenging.


  • The Frighteners - It may have been somewhat forgotten now in the wake of the massive success of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" movie trilogies, but this horror comedy from Peter Jackson and starring Michael J Fox in his last leading film role is still a favourite in my house. Fox is Frank Bannister, an architect who is able to see and hear the ghosts around him. Initially he uses this ability to make some supernatural friends and set up a flourishing exorcism scam, but when the spirit of a mass murderer starts attacking both the living and the dead, Frank gets pulled into the investigation. Of course it's a film chock full of visual effects (more so than pretty much any other film of the time) and proved that Jackson could handle the demands of that kind of  shoot, but it's the real performances that stand out. Fox is enjoyable in pretty much everything he's done, but here he manages to imbue his character with a bit of a world-weary attitude. There is a nice turn from R. Lee Ermey who basically reprises his role as the screaming sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket". But is Jeffrey Combs who steals ever scene he is in as the disturbed (and disturbing) FBI agent.


  • DC versus Marvel - Fans had been looking for a meeting of the heroes and villains of the rival comic publishers for decades, and after a lot of wrangling we got this four issue mini series by Peter David, Ron Marz, Dan Jurgens and Claudio Castellini. There's some nonsense about cosmic embodiments of the two universes setting up a contest, but it was really an excuse for a series of smack-downs between various characters, with a fan vote deciding the outcome of each bout (I still can't believe Storm defeated Wonder Woman though). It's fun stuff, particularly when the intervention of new character Access resulted in the two universes being merged - and we got the 12 issue "Amalgam" imprint with odd fusions such as Dark Claw (Batman & Wolverine), the Green Skull (Lex Luthor & Red Skull), Moonwing (Nightwing & Moon Knight) and Doctor Strangefate (you get the idea...). There was even the Two-Faced Goblin and an amalgamation of Green Arrow and Hawkeye called...er....Hawkeye. In terms of sheer comics geekery it was pretty hard to beat - until 2003 anyway...


  • Mars Attacks! - I wasn't even born when the original "Mars Attacks" trading cards were released, but I was soon aware of them once I started to seriously become interested in all things science fiction (plus, don't forget Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds from 1978...). Who couldn't fail to enjoy the lurid, sometimes blood-soaked paintings by Wally Wood and Norman Saunders depicting the Martians with their skull-like faces and pulsating brains? The cards soon became huge collector's items and think I didn't get to see a full set of images until the rise of the internet. As for Tim Burton's live action satire / comedy / thriller adaptation - it's as mad as a box of frogs. Where else would you get to see Jack Nicholson hamming it up to 11 in two roles. Or Pierce Brosnan as a disembodied head smoking a pipe. Or Tom Jones playing himself as an action hero! Or the Martians heads exploding when they listen to Slim Whitman? It's all over the place and I love it more because of that. Plus the aliens themselves are a triumph of 90s CGI. "Ack Ack Ack Ack !"

  • The Rock - Before Michael Bay became the king of over the top mindless action, he made this smart thriller starring the legendary Sean Connery and personal favourite Nicholas Cage. A bunch of rogue US Marines take over Alcatraz Prison, hold all the tourists hostage and threaten to release nerve gas over San Francisco unless they get $100 million for the families of Recon Marines who died on covert operations. Cage plays the FBI's top chemical weapons expert, the wonderfully name Stanley Goodspeed, who is paired up with former British SAS Captain John Mason (Connery) - a man who has been mysteriously locked up without charge for thirty years and is the only person to ever escape Alcatraz. What follows is a wonderful action film, made all the better by the chemistry between the two leads. Connery is clearly enjoying himself as the secretive Mason (was he a disguised James Bond?...) and Cage is on a career roll. It's also worth mentioning Ed Harris as the Brigadier General in charge of the bad guys, who makes his character quite sympathetic at times. It's one of those movies which, when it comes on TV, I stop changing channels and end up watching all the way through - no matter how many times I've seen it before. There's nothing guilty about this pleasure.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 29 - 1995

Ah...right...so that was August was it...and part of September? Damn...

Anyway, I'm still soldiering on in attempt to return things here to some semblance of regularity, but it's proving to be incredibly difficult, due to a number of personal challenges. I'll get there eventually I'm sure, but free time for any kind of writing has been nonexistent. Thankfully I'm currently on two weeks holiday, hence the final delayed appearance of what has turned into a very long post indeed...

This time round I reach the year I got married (for the first time). In the world of fantastical fiction there is a bit of a resurgence, with a number of significant new (and returning) authors. In film there are a couple of big flops and in comics some seminal titles that have had a huge influence even to this day. But in a busy year I've decided to chose something that harkens back to a more innocent age...

1995:

The trivia:
  • Convicted killer Daniel Luther Heiss was serving time in the Berrimah prison in Darwin, Australia when he noticed that the keys pictured on the front of the prisoner information handbook looked very similar to those for the prison cells that the guards carried. He and fellow inmate Shame Baker - a former jeweller who for some reason was allowed to have equipment in his cell - made an exact replica of the key that fitted the lock and they then escaped by scaling three razor-fire perimeter fences. It was 12 days before Heisss was recaptured. The locks were swiftly changed.
  • On 29th June 1995 the Sampoong department store in Seoul, South Korea collapsed, killing over 500 people.One of the major contributing factors was that during construction the owner insisted on adding an extra 6th floor with a swimming pool. When the engineers working on the project warned that this would be dangerous, they were fired and the changes covered up by bribing government officials.
  • Inept criminal McArthur Wheeler robbed two Pittsburgh banks with his face covered in lemon juice. His crazy logic was that since the juice could be used to write invisible letters (the writing only becomes readable when held near a heat source), the same thing would apply to his face and by smearing himself in the liquid he would effectively become invisible to the banks security cameras. Needless to say he was captured later the same day, thanks to surveillance footage clearly identifying him.       

The memory:

The Power of SHAZAM!

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the *original* Captain Marvel.

As usual, before we get to my personal memory, we need some contextual history, and there is quite a lot to get through...

First appearing in 1939 in the pages of  Fawcett Publications "Whiz Comics" as an "alternative" to a then fledgling superhero known as Superman, young radio reporter Billie Batson is drawn by a mysterious figure to an underground cave via a subway station. Creeping past vast statues illustrating the Seven Deadly Enemies of Mankind (greed, hate, laziness, etc.), Billy meets the ancient wizard Shazam, who asks the lad to become his new champion. Directed to shout out  the sorcerer's name, Billy finds himself transformed by a bolt of lightning into an adult, clad in a red and gold costume and endowed with the powers of six gods - Solomon, Hercules Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. He was now the World's Mightiest Mortal - Captain Marvel !


Written by Bill Parker and illustrated in a cartoony, whimsical style by Clarence Charles "C.C" Beck, that comic also introduced readers to the villain who would become the Captain's greatest nemesis - the bald, buck-toothed scientist Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana. It was a huge hit, selling half a million copies. Subsequent issues featured Marvel in repeat engagements with Sivana, battling the ever present Nazis, facing Sivana's duplicitous daughter Beautia and even fighting the brainwashed hero Spy Smasher. Within a year the hero had his own title, "Captain Marvel Adventures" and in 1941 the character was considered popular enough to feature in his own Republic Pictures serial starring Tom Tyler.


Unfortunately this also brought him to the attention of DC (then National) Comics lawyers. Citing that Marvel was infringing their copyright, the lawsuits would drag on for years and fundamentally affect the character. But that was all in the future. Right then Fawcett had a huge success on their hands - regularly selling 1.8 million copies twice a month under the pen of main writer Otto Binder. Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero in the world.

Around this time Fawcett also began a number of spin-off's of their main character. Firstly in Whiz Comics issue 21, Billy met three boys who also shared his name - Tall Billy, Fat Billy and Hill Billy Batson (look it was the 1940s, okay?). Thanks to a plot by Sivana, they all wound up tied to a log in a sawmill. When the four shouted "Shazam!" together, they all turned into Captain Marvels, but after defeating the evil doctor, the trio agreed that there was only one true hero, so they would become "Lieutenant Marvels".

Then editor Ed Heron introduced Freddy Freeman, a young boy crippled during a fight involving villain Captain Nazi, whose life was saved by Marvel when he convinced the wizard Shazam  to grant him a portion of his powers. By exclaiming "Captain Marvel!", Freddy still retained his youth but became "Captain Marvel Jr". When Freddy moved over to his own title in "Master Comics", it was with a more gritty, realistic style from artist Emmanuel Raboy (later to succeed Alex Raymond on the "Flash Gordon newspaper strips).


Captain Marvel Jr proved to be such a hit that in 1942 Otto Binder and artist Mark Swayze had Billy Batson discover he had a long lost twin sister, who when granted her own set of powers became Mary Marvel! Together, Billy, Freddy, Mary and the trio of Lieutenants became the 'Marvel Family', with another regular title. Later they would be joined by loveable con-man Dudley H. Dudley as their non-super-powered manager "Uncle Marvel" and there is also the anthropomorphic Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, but we don't have time for *that* story...


That first issue of "Marvel Family" would introduce a character that appeared to be a one off - the wizard Shazam's previous champion Teth-Adam. Banished 5,000 years ago for abusing his powers, he returned for revenge as "Black Adam" before being tricked by Uncle Dudley into saying his magic word and turning to dust. But you can't keep a good villain down for more than a few decades...

The most famous Golden Age Captain Marvel storyline was the 25-part "Monster Society of Evil", in which the good Captain and his friends battled a huge gathering of previous foes brought together by a mysterious voice known as "Mr Mind". After many chapters it was revealed that this was a really a two-inch green alien worm wearing glasses, possessed of mind controlling powers! He was duly captured, tried, executed and stuffed! It was the first epic superhero crossover not to mention the first super-villain team-up and shaped what was possible in the. medium.


By the early 1950s, superhero comics were losing their appeal and sales of Captain Marvel comics became moribund. The stories appeared dated and simple in a time of horror, war and crime comics. Fawcett tried to adjust by introducing villains such as King Kull and Mr.Atom, a robot powered by atomic energy but these didn't sit well with the more innocent stories of the past. Then in 1953, to make matters worse, the lawsuits from DC returned with a vengeance. Tired from battling it out in court for years, Fawcett agreed to DC's terms and reluctantly ceased publication of all Captain Marvel comics immediately. "The Marvel Family" #89 was the end of an era.

Meanwhile over in the UK, publishers L. Miller & Sons had long been releasing black and white reprints of the Captain Marvel stories, along with other Fawcett heroes. When their supply of new material began to dry up, they took the unusual step of creating their own character with writer Mick Anglo. "Marvelman" was...let's call it "inspired"... by the alter-ego of Billy Batson - except here reporter Micky Moran was contacted by an "astrophysicist" and granted powers based on nuclear energy rather than magic (his special word was "Kimota" which is atomic spelled backwards). Otherwise the similarities with Captain Marvel were numerous, even down to a pair of teenage sidekicks (Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman) and an evil buck-toothed nemesis in Doctor Emil Gargunza.

 
The two existing L.Miller & Sons titles were renamed to reflect the new stand-ins and were published weekly for an astonishing 346 issues each. They were joined by the monthly "Marvelman Family" and various annuals - and sales outstripped those of the Captain Marvel reprints at some stages. Then in 1959 the law changed and full colour American comics could be imported to the UK for the first time. Unable to complete with their flashier rivals, Miller's switched everything to monthly reprints and limped along until 1963 when they had to file for bankruptcy.

(Of course all good comics fans know what happened to 'Marvelman' when he was eventually resurrected in the pages of "Warrior" magazine in 1985, by some guy called Alan Moore - but that *definitely* is a story for another day),

Captain Marvel might have been off the shelves in the USA, but fans of the original material kept his name alive by trading the hard to find back issues. C.C. Beck moved into commercial art, but Otto Binder stayed in comics and his period in charge of Superman was one of the most fertile in terms of new ideas. Binder introduced Supergirl, Braniac, the Phantom Zone, the Fortress of Solitude, Krypto the Super-Dog, the bottle city of Kandor and the Legion of Super-heroes - all of which reflected many of the concepts from the 'Marvel Family' . Most of my earliest memories of reading Superman stories are from UK reprints of Binder's classic work.

Time marched on and superheroes began to regain their lost popularity. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionised things with the debut of the Fantastic Four and their soap opera plotlines and cosmic adventures. By the mid-60s many of the Golden Age characters were revived (often in updated forms) - but due to Fawcett's settlement with DC, Captain Marvel could not be one of them. His legacy was still being felt though - whether it was via several somewhat poorly conceived and frankly weird "revivals" from Binder and C.C. Beck ("Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer" lasted just three issues), in the lines of Beatles lyrics on "The White Album" or even in the jump-suited stage presence of Elvis which was apparently based on Captain Marvel Jr.


Even though Fawcett couldn't use the name, that didn't stop another publisher from trying their luck. Rip off merchants “M.F. Enterprises” put out a book in 1966 called "Captain Marvel", but their version was an android from another planet who could separate his arms, legs and head from his body to fight by themselves by yelling “Split!”and reform with the word “Xam!”. He battled villains such as “Plastic Man,” “Dr. Fate” and “Doctor Doom.”. Copyright (and good comics) meant nothing to owner Myron Fass. Needless to say Marvel and DC were not best pleased and this version did not last long. But a precedent had been set and shortly thereafter Marvel Comics got the legal rights to use the name "Captain Marvel" and created the famous Kree warrior Mar-Vell. He starred in his own book for much of the 70s, including a well-regarded run by Jim Starlin that introduced the villain Thanos, before being famously killed off in 1982. Marvel still have a character called Captain Marvel to this day - and they are not letting go of *that* copyright.


By the early 1970s, the original Captain Marvel had been gone from the newsstands for two decades. But DC itself was facing a challenge, as it's Silver Age revamps were themselves beginning to feel old fashioned and out of touch. Part of their response was to engage talents such as Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams to revitalise old favourites like Batman, or woo Jack Kirby aware from Marvel to bring his magic touch to new concepts such as the "Fourth World" books or "The Demon". But another string to their bow was to look at their former publishing competitor.

Since Fawcett couldn't publish a Captain Marvel comic under the terms of the legal agreement, DC offered to licence the hero and publish it themselves (eventually they bought the rights completely). But of course Marvel Comics now owned the trademark to the name, so the comic that debuted in 1972 to much interest was therefore titled "Shazam!: The World's Mightiest Mortal".

The first issue revealed Captain Marvel, Mary, Junior and most of the supporting cast (including the evil Doctor Sivana) had been trapped in "suspendium" for 20 years - neatly explaining away their absence and bringing them into the modern world. Shortly thereafter it was revealed that both the evil worm Mr Mind and the 5,000 year old Black Adam had survived their original fates and it was time for a whole new raft of adventures.

But DC thought that their real coup was getting the legendary C.C. Beck to draw the new stories alongside reprints of older Fawcett tales. It certainly garnered them lots of publicity at the time, but problems soon developed. The fun retro stories were a hit with younger readers and old Cap fans but seemed out of place in the more gritty 1970s. It was proving difficult to capture the lightning in a bottle of 20 years previous. Beck was also by this point a notorious curmudgeon, disillusioned with modern comics, and he began to rewrite scripts without the knowledge of his collaborators or editor, creating a degree of tension. With sales in decline, things reached crisis point when Beck refused to draw the script for issue ten. DC had enough and fired him.


With Beck gone, DC hired Kurt Schaffenberger, a longtime Fawcett and Superman artist to continue working in the same vein, along with a plethora of other artists for short stints. But sticking to the storytelling approach of the 40s and 50s wasn't working despite the huge efforts on everyone's part. The title needed something different. In the very last issue, along came Don Newton, a life-long fan of the character and a friend of C.C. Beck. His style combined a more modern, realistic look for Captain Marvel alongside the humorous scripts. Newton went on to illustrate a further thirty Marvel stories in the pages of the "World's Finest" comic. Many regarded his run as a highlight. Beck (obviously) disagreed with the interpretation and the two men fell out.

Meanwhile in another medium, the Filmation TV studio produced a "Shazam!" TV series starring Michael Gray as Billy Batson, Jackson Bostwick (season one) and John Davey (seasons two and three) as Captain Marvel and Les Tremayne as new creation Mr. Mentor. Later on they added a new female superheroine named Isis as a second half hour show, and the two occasionally crossed over.. Despite its miniscule budget, the show's combination of non-violent action and moral storytelling was hugely popular, running from 1974 to 1976 and introduced a whole new generation to the Big Red Cheese. Unfortunately it never made it to the UK as far as I am aware, so I didn't get to see it, unlike their animated efforts based on "Star Trek" and "Tarzan",


By the time the TV series went off the air , Captain Marvel was definitely more of a known name and DC was intent on keeping him around even if he didn't have a comic of his own. In line with their 'multiverse' concept, the Marvel Family and all the heroes and villains around them lived on Earth-S. This meant that they were separate, yet could cross over with the 'main' DC universe when an interesting storyline arose. In 1978 fans got the showdown they had been looking for in the over-sized Treasury edition of "Superman vs. Shazam!", written by Gerry Conway with art by Rich Buckler. There was even a new Filmation animated series which this time was able to include many of the classic foes such as Back Adam and Mr. Mind, but it only lasted 13 episodes.


Finally we reach the 1980s, when I seriously started getting into US comics. But there was also "Warrior" magazine with that revamp of "Marvelman" by Alan Moore - and that's where I became aware of this hero called "Captain Marvel" for the first time, as an article explained the long convoluted history of Marvelman and where he came from. I was immediately intrigued as I had never read any of his previous adventures, and I started to seek out more information.

Then came 1985 and DC's massive 12-issue crossover event "Crisis on Infinite Earths", designed to streamline their superhero universe and merge all the different Earth's, including the one inhabited by Captain Marvel. Now the thing is, I never had any problem understanding the multiverse concept and the idea that differing versions of the same character could live on alternate words at different times, even dying. I loved the original Earth-2 with an older grey-haired Superman, a dead Batman, the World War II based All-Star Squadron, the Justice Society of America and their descendants Infinity Inc. It was a world that had a history and a weight to it. Just look at the "America vs. the Justice Society" mini-series to see this in action. All the multiple universe-shattering events that have come since and the attempts to retrofit DC's long history together have - despite some excellent comics -  just lost that unique flavor. Modern readers would, I am sure, quite happily accept distinct ranges of titles labeled "Earth-1", "Earth-2" and so on. Corporate synergy had got in the way of good storytelling. Sorry, bit of a rant there, but it's one of the things that makes me sad about the current era - well the post-Crisis / Zero Hour / Infinite Crisis / Final Crisis  / Flashpoint  / New-52 era anyway - lets see if "Rebirth" can reverse the trend.

So during "Crisis", Captain Marvel valiantly led the heroes of Earth-S against the forces of the Anti-Monitor. This was my first real exposure to the character, but it didn't really give me a sense of him or his world. There was too much else going on. Of course when the dust settled and there was only one DC Earth,  the legends history had been rewritten and he now had always existed on the same planet as Superman. They were firm friends and basically the same power level, although Marvel was not susceptible to magic like Supes, so was useful in those kind of fights...

Then following the 1986 John Byrne "Legends" mini-series, Marvel was inducted into the infamous Giffen and DeMatteis Justice League International. What's more, whereas previously Billy and the Captain had been two distinct personalities, now the adult hero retained the mindset and outlook of the young boy, as a contrast to the more serious and cynical members (of course *I* didn't know at the time that this wasn't what always happened when he transformed). As with most of that book, Marvel was played for laughs with his wide-eyed optimism earning him the nickname "Captain Whitebread", but I loved all of the incarnations of the JLI at this point so this was just one more "Bwaa-ha-ha".


At the same time as his appearances in JLI, veteran writers Roy and Dann Thomas with artist Tom Mandrake produced the "Shazam: A New Beginning" miniseries. This was a real attempt to bring Captain Marvel into the modern era with a more realistic feel. This version of his origin saw Billy Batson's initial transformation directly tied into Doctor Sivana and the revival of Black Adam. I remember buying this mini (along with pretty much all of DC's output at the time) and I've read that it sold well, but for me it didn't gel with the more upbeat hero I read about in JLI. I do like Tom Mandrake's art on other projects (he's perfect on "The Spectre" for example) but this just seemed *wrong* somehow, even with my limited knowledge of the characters history at the time. I didn't really want a Captain Marvel glowering out at me from the cover. Still, what do I know?


Following the revised origin story and a strip in "Action Comics Weekly" came...well, nothing (except for a guest appearance in the "War of the Gods" mini-series starring Wonder Woman). A planned ongoing series never materialized. Several false starts with different artists (including John Byrne) came and went and eventually Roy Thomas moved onto other things, perhaps a little disillusioned over the runaround he had been given on a property he had high hopes for.

So then, at long last, we come to the whole crux of this piece and writer / artist Jerry Ordways's take on the decades old superhero - "The Power of Shazam!". But before the ongoing series came the beautifully painted 96-page graphic novel. This gave another retelling of how Billy Batson became Captain Marvel with Ordway cherry-picking pieces from the stories of the past to weave them into a new tapestry.

This time the modern day reincarnation of Teth-Adam was directly responsible for the murder of Billy's parents while on an archeological dig and for the abduction of his sister Mary, under the instructions of tycoon Doctor Sivana. Meanwhile back in the retro-styled Fawcett City, Billy encountered the wizard Shazam and received his powers in much the same way as in the original Whiz Comics #2, although it was later revealed that the mysterious stranger that led him to the subway was in fact the ghost of his dead father, C.C Batson (a nice nod to the artist who gave so much to the original comics). The graphic novel left a furious Sivana penniless after Marvel's battles with Black Adam (who has his memories removed by the wizard), and vowing revenge. The stage was set....


The graphic novel was very successful, winning several fan awards and led to an ongoing series at last. I had enjoyed the story enormously, so was at the front of the queue when issue one appeared in my local comic shop. Ordway stayed on writing duties and provided stunning painted covers every month. He only did the occasional interior art, with most of the adventures being drawn by Peter Krause, inked by Dick Giordano or Mike Manley.

Right from the start Ordway began to reintroduce other elements of the Fawcett run into current DC continuity. The premiere issue had Uncle Dudley, the villain IBAC and Beautia Sivana, along with new creation Sinclair Batson, a wealthy property developer who wanted to transform Fawcett City. This was swiftly followed by the Arson Fiend, Captain Nazi, and of course Billy's sister Mary and Freddie Freeman. - alias Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. However there was a twist on these members of the Marvel Family. Mary now transformed into an adult and insisted on sharing the "Captain Marvel" name with her brother. She also wore a white costume to further distinguish herself. Meanwhile Freddie resented being called "Junior" all the time, so decided to rename himself "CM3" (which I personally thought was terrible). One further tweak was that there was only so much magical power available, which meant that the three heroes had to share, their strength diminishing each time another invoked their magic word.

Ordway was able to create his only little Fawcett corner of the DC Earth with all of these old, yet new heroes and villains. For those who had always been fans of the Big Red Cheese, it was clear that there was a huge love for the stories of the past in every page, even while updating some things to a more modern sensibility. For those (like me) who came to the series completely fresh, or with only a very limited exposure to the character, we were discovering a whole new universe full of wonder. The 90s in comics has often been defined as a period of grim and gritty violent heroes (and pouches - don't forget the pouches). "The Power of Shazam!" went against the grain and was a successful all-ages adventure book. I'm not down on the former type - I enjoy all types of comics - but the tales of Captain Marvel written by Jerry Ordway were something pretty special. Maybe it was the retro feel of things, or that it harkened back to my childhood memories of discovering superheroes for the first time (perhaps even those early Otto Binder Superman stories I mentioned). What ever the reason, the comic was soon one of my favourites ever month.


Within the first twelve months, Black Adam was let loose on the world once more. The persona and history developed for him, as a more noble anti-hero, is one that has stayed the test of time and been incorporated  into subsequent iterations. However as he was also writing some of the Superman books at this point, Ordway incorporated the demonic villains Lady Blaze and Lord Satanus from those comics into the Captain Marvel mythology. Blaze became the one who had corrupted Black Adam and she and Satanus were revealed to be the illegitimate children of the wizard Shazam.

In quick succession the writer introduced more Fawcett friends - Bulletman, Ibis the Invincible and Princess Taia, Spy Smasher, Minute-Man, Mr. Scarlet - they all became part of the new Marvel roster. In the second year the malicious worm from Venus, Mr. Mind reappeared, teamed up once again with Dr. Sivana. Ordway even found a way to make 1940s oddities such as Tawky Tawny (a stuffed toy tiger that walks and talks like a man) and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny work in a more modern context and had a guest appearance from the rip-off "Captain Marvel" from M.F. Enterprises, complete with splitting limbs!


All told the series lasted an impressive 47 issues and an annual, plus a #1,000,000 to tie in with the "DC One Million" event - and that was part of the problem that some believe led to the comics eventual cancellation. Instead of being allowed to mature and grow in the sandbox Ordway had lovingly created in the first couple of years, the title was increasingly dragged into the multitude of DC universe spanning events that were incredibly prevalent at the time. "Final Night", "Genesis", "Underworld Unleashed"  - you name it, Captain Marvel, as one of the most powerful heroes in DC's pantheon, was pulled into it. Just as things were building nicely in their own little corner in Fawcett City, along came a company wide cross-over to derail things - at least that's how some saw it. I'm not sure that for me it was quite that bad, but it's true that DC did have a bit of event madness going on at the time.

That's not to say that Jerry Ordway didn't make the very best of the events he found mandated on him by the wider DC universe. Nor that Captain Marvel couldn't cross-over with other DC characters successfully. One of the best of these was the four-part "Lightning & Stars" which saw Marvel meet the James Robinson version of Starman in a story that spanned both titles. Both Robinson and Ordway clearly had a love of the huge history of  the comics medium and liked to try and make all of the ill-fitting pieces of their heroes continuity work together, so it really was an excellent match.

All in all it was not a bad run to last for four years in a marketplace dominated by darker, more intense comics and storylines. Many creators would sell all their worldly possessions for a series to last that long in the 21st Century. "The Power of Shazam!" showed that you could make a Golden Age flavoured hero work and it certainly raised Captain Marvel's profile higher than it had been for years. Jerry Ordway and his collaborators should be rightly proud of what they accomplished.


After the series cancellation, it was really superstar artist Alex Ross who became the keeper of the flame of Captain Marvel, who had a large role in the universally praised "Kingdom Come" miniseries Ross did with Mark Waid, which he then followed up in 2000 with the oversized graphic novel "Power of Hope" written by Paul Dini. Marvel also had a big presence in the 12-issue "Justice" mini series, again by Ross, Jim Krueger and Doug Braithwaite published between 2005 and 2007..

But in the 21st century it seems that DC can't settle on a definitive take on the Marvel Family. They have been retooled and re-tweaked time and time again either in the pages of "Infinite Crisis" or "The Trials of Shazam" and Mary Marvel was even turned evil for a while in "Final Crisis". With the relaunch of the "New 52" a lengthy backup tale in "Justice League" by Geoff Johns (who I normally rate as a very good writer) and Gary Frank redefined things yet again, thins time far more serious and flawed with his powers more rooted in fantasy and magic - and with Captain Marvel's name seemingly permanently changed to "Shazam". Hmmm, I'm still not sure about that one, even if it probably is how most people in the street know him by now. We've yet to see how this will pan out in DC's "Rebirth" continuity. Hopefully some of the fun and optimism will be let back in.


There have been alternate versions aplenty such as in Grant Morrison's "Thunderworld" or the "Forever Evil" crossover. "Bone" creator Jeff Smith's mini "Monster Society of Evil" was a more traditional take returning Billy and his alternate to having separate personalities. Following this lead was the young reader orientated "Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!" between 2008 and 2010, drawn in a animation-influenced style by Mike Kunkel and others.

It's been a long, long road for good old Captain Marvel from his 1940s origins as a Superman analogy and he is definitely not going away. As good (and bad) some of these other comics have been, I still think that beyond the original Golden Age tales, Jerry Ordway's take on the Fawcett heroes is the definitive one. Maybe I'm old fashioned and stick with the things I loved 20 years ago. Maybe I don't like change (I'm sure that the 2010s version will get some new readers interested in the past stories too). Or maybe I just like a hero that is pure of heart, full of wonder and where good always triumphs over evil with a smile.

SHAZAM !


 Honourable mentions:
  • Judge Dredd - Hang on...shouldn't this have been the premier choice? After all it does star the most famous character from my favourite British comic of the last 40 years. Surely this would be my most treasured memory from 1995? A valid point, but I still couldn't bring myself to elevate this film higher than a footnote - there is just too much wrong with it. It tries very hard and there are some excellent elements - the CGI vistas of Mega-City One, the depiction of the Angel Gang, the Hammerstein war robot (even if he really shouldn't be there), but the bad outways the good. Stallone obviously thought he was making some kind of comedy (Rob Schneider doesn't help either). Sly's delivery is almost unintelligible, the script is dull as dishwater and don't even get me started on the decision to remove Dredd's helmet. It's a huge chance squandered and killed the idea of Dredd as a movie possibility for nigh on twenty years. There is an excellent attempt at a fan edit out on the interweb, but there are only so many ways you can polish a turd...
  • You Don't Know Jack - A multiple choice trivia quiz video game that's often genuinely funny, I first came across "YDKJ" via a freebie disc given away with a games review magazine. Billed as the quiz "where high culture and pop culture collide", players get to choose categories from humourous titles that have a (sometimes obscure) connection to the topic. The first player to "buzz in" with the correct answer from the choices given wins the money on offer. Get it wrong and they lose that amount of funds. The winner is obviously whoever has the most cash at the end of the 7 or 21 question rounds, but it's the irreverent and often silly questions, sarcastic commentary from the games host and especially the spoof adverts and phony news stories interspersed between games that make it all so much fun. Since the original there have been over 20 different iterations or spin-off's - each with their own unique set of questions  and take on the quiz show format. One game of this is never enough...
  • SFX Magazine - Wandering through the local shopping centre with my then fiancee, I happened upon a lurid pink logo on a magazine in a newsagents window, accompanied by a picture of Lori Petty as "Tank Girl". The strapline proclaimed it to be "the hot new science fiction magazine", so it obviously appealed to my personal interests and I was interested enough to pick up a copy. Filled with news, interviews, opinions and reviews of movies, DVD releases, books, comics and assorted other tat, those early issues were a joy to read. Remember, the internet was out of reach of most ordinary folk at this point and there were only a handful of other sources for this kind of niche information ("Starburst" being one, but for some reason I can't explain I never got into it) Twenty-two years later "SFX" is still going strong, what was once seen as cult is now mainstream and I have bought every issue - although most were consigned to a skip when I moved house around a decade ago (sob). I've been introduced to dozens of new authors, hundreds of TV shows and films I may not otherwise have touched and yes,  I know that everything is at our fingertips now on the web, but there is something special about reading a physical magazine. I don't think I can ever abandon it for the digital world. Long may it continue.
  • Waterworld - Yes it went wildly over budget, was a nightmare to film and certain accounts paint Kevin Costner as a micro-managing egomaniac who forced director Kevin Reynolds to leave, but I'd like to argue that critics had the knives out for this film before it was even released and in reality it's actually an enjoyable Mad-Max-esque post apocalyptic action adventure with an intriguing premise, impressive sets and decent acting. Sure it has flaws, but it's no where near as bad as some people make out and thanks to DVD it's started to be reassessed in more recent years. The extended version was also a huge step in the right direction, but if you want the best version of "Waterworld", seek out the "Ulysses Cut". 
  • Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) - The first book in Philip Pullman's celebrated "His Dark Materials" trilogy.mixes parallel worlds, animal embodiment's of people's souls, witches, armoured polar bears and a thinly veiled version of the Catholic Church. As 'young adult' novels go, it definitely veers more towards the older end of the spectrum and it's rare to see an fantasy story tackle such weighty philosophical themes as destiny, free will, the suppression of knowledge by organised religion, and the differences between innocence and experience. As a whole the trilogy is a masterpiece,
  • Astro City - Kurt Busiek's creator owned title set primarily around the titular fictional metropolis is probably one of the greatest superhero universes of the last three decades. Busiek took the ground level themes he developed on the "Marvels" miniseries and applied them to his own creations - a huge cast of characters, some of which have only appeared in the background for years only to suddenly be catapulted into the spotlight. Stories are less likely to be about the latest universe shattering event and more about the small things - a date between two ultra-powerful beings, two brothers in the lower echelons of heroes, the decades long "friendship" between a hero and a villain, a bystanders attempts to come to terms with having being held hostage, etc , etc. Everything comes across as being meticulously planned (even though I'm sure it's not) and is superbly illustrated by Brent Anderson with mega-star Alex Ross on covers and character designs. Above all the absolute love for the medium and the heroes that form it's backbone shines through. 
  • Sabriel - So after discovering Philip Pullman, I started to take a closer look at other 'young adult' novelists, and this title by Australian Garth Nix leapt out at me. Like many of his contemporaries, Nix takes a time worn concept - in this case non-magical and magical countries separated by a barrier and a protagonist flirting with destiny - and spins something truly new out of it. When her father is lost, Sabriel becomes the next  Abhorsen, able to cross into the realm of Death and quieten the restless dead through the power of necromancy and the use of her bells. However she also faces the menace of  Kerrigor, who wants to destroy the 'Charter' that keeps wild free magic from corrupting both her Old Kingdom and the world of Ancelstierre on the other side of the wall. It's a great story full of surprises, but for me it's Nix's development of the history of his world and its system of magic that really shines here.

  • Richard III - There have been a lot of great versions of the Shakespeare play concerning the rise and fall of the machiavellian Richard Plantagenet, but I'd put this one starring Sir Ian McKellan at the very top. Set in a fascist version of 1930s Britain, the film further ramps up the disturbing overtones by the use of various elements of the Nazi Third Reich. This coupled with the use of real buildings instead of sets (a then derelict Battersea Power Station for one) adds another note of disturbing realism to the whole project. McKellan is, as one would expect, truly magnificent in the lead role, his Richard relishing in being the villain of the piece as he schemes his way to power. The screenplay (which Ian adapted himself from the previous 1990 stage production he also starred in) makes some bold visual choices with the interpretation of the text. Richard often speaks directly to the camera, and my favourite is when the famous "winter of discontent" speech begins with a Nazi-like rally but ends with him plotting to himself while peeing in a dilapidated gents toilet! Ably supported by, amongst others, Robert Downey Jr, Nigel Hawthorne and Kristen Scott Thomas, this really is a mesmerising piece that I keep returning to.
  • Assassin's Apprentice - When Megan Lindholm released her first novel as "Robin Hobb", few could have imagined that the story she began here would grow to cover sixteen different novels across more than twenty years in both real and fictional time and become one of the best-loved fantasy sequences of recent decades. This initial volume details the early life of FitzChivalry Farseer, a royal bastard who becomes an assassin and who's actions may one day decide the fate of the world. While one could argue that the fantasy setting appears fairly standard (although it expands hugely as subsequent trilogies add to the mythos), it's the characters that Hobb creates that stick in the memory. There is real skill in making the reader care about the inhabitants of the Six Duchies and building and developing their relationships - especially when the book is all told in the first person. The abiding friendship between Fitz and the mysterious 'Fool' is at the heart of the whole series and it's that core that keeps her legions of fans coming back for more.
  • Preacher- No look back at 1995 would be complete without mentioning the infamous Garth Ennis Vertigo comic which introduced the world to Jesse Custer, Tulip O' Hare, Cassidy the vampire and of course Arseface. When the reluctant minister is accidentally bonded with Genesis, a creature born from the forbidden union between a demon and an angel, it kick starts a quest to find God and make him accountable for his neglect of humanity. What follows is shockingly violent and filled with an array of hideous grotesques - yet also manages to take in the legends of the American West, individual morality and the limits of friendship and love. The late great Steve Dillon illustrates every page of the main series and there is almost no one better at being able to portray intimate emotions playing across a characters face followed by scenes of sometimes disgusting depravity. All this plus some of the most beautiful covers ever from Glenn Fabry. I hope the current TV series is hugely popular so that more people discover this classic.

  • The Baker's Boy - one final new fantasy novel for this year and it's the first of the "Book of Words" trilogy by Julie "J.V". Jones. It seems to be the usual tale of a pair of familiar-ish characters - a downtrodden servant boy who finds a power awakening inside him and a princess who wants to escape the dull life planned for her. But traditional doesn't have to mean bad and Jones puts enough twists and turns and political machinations into her plots to keep things interesting, telling the story from multiple points of view using both major and minor characters. She has particular skill with her villains - the sorcerous chancellor Baralis being the highlight for me, but the gluttonous Archbishop Tavalisk is also a lot of fun. I remember speeding through the complete trilogy very quickly. Sadly it appears that personal difficulties have meant a longer and longer gap between subsequent novels, and Jones's follow-up series "Sword Of Shadows" remains unfinished with nothing new since 2010. Hopefully her situation improves and she feels capable of producing more work of the quality of her debut.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 28 - 1994

So huge apologies for the extreme lateness of this post (and to anyone wondering where the "X-Files" reviews have got to). Unforeseen circumstances with my elderly father and then a period of ill health on my part have not only slowed things to a crawl, but also required me to put everything except "Golden Sunsets" on hold for the immediately future (and even that one post a week is a proving to be a struggle). It's going to be very much an "as and when it's ready" release schedule from now on, until things settle down. I still intend to blog 50 years of memories and watch every single episode of "The X-Files", but I can't commit to any kind of regular timetable. It's a shame, but as with everything on this blog, it's mainly for my own amusement - to be honest I can't imagine many people were hanging on for my reviews of a twenty year old TV series...

Anyway this time around, it was once again much harder to find something for the top spot. But for a a change it was not due to a wealth of choices, but because my mind was elsewhere. I had met the woman who would become my first wife, we had moved in together and were planning a wedding. Compared to that, everything else seemed...less important...

1994:

The trivia:
  • During a quiet Wednesday evening meeting off the local neighbourhood crime watch meeting in Homestead, Florida, proceedings were interrupted by the noise of a very low-flying plane. Suddenly a package fell out of the aircraft and landed slap bang in the middle of the gathered residents. It turned out to be a 75-pound bag of cocaine.
  • When rain began to fall in Oakville Washington in the early hours on 7th August 1994, residents noticed that it was not water but a strange jelly-like substance. Within a few hours various people became violently ill with vertigo, blurred vision , nausea and trouble breathing. when a sample of the material was examined it was found to contain human white blood cells and was teeming with two species of bacteria, one of which lies in the human  digestive system, Over a period of three weeks this strange phenomenon would occur a total of six times and while theories abounded about the cause - ranging from human waste from an airplane, jellyfish thrown into the air by a naval bombing exercise and even the testing of a military biological weapon - nothing was ever confirmed. Apparently no samples of the jelly still exist. I wonder why?...
  • After an earthquake caused a power cut over most of Los Angeles, many people phoned observatories (and allegedly even emergency services) to report a strange giant silvery cloud in the sky over the city. It was the Milky Way.

The memory:

The Shadow:

I have already established with previous entries that I have a real fondness for the 'pulp' characters from the early part of the 20th century - heroes such as 'Doc' Savage, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Biggles and Tarzan. I'd enjoyed many of their exploits in the pages of numerous paperback novels, on television and on film - and the main memory of this post is a cinematic one. However with "The Shadow", I came to know first him through another route...

Originally "The Shadow" was simply the sinister announcer of the "Dectective Story Hour" radio show, but intense listener interest led to publishers Street & Smith hiring Walter Gibson to develop a concept and persona to fit the mysterious voice. Beginning in April 1931 and containing for almost two decades, Gibson wrote 282 (out of 325) adventures of the dark vigilante under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant - incredibly that's a novel-length story twice a month. Other guest writers (including 'Doc' Savage's own Lester Dent) did the remainder.

Gibson created the foundations of "The Shadow" - including his persona, multiple  aliases, helpers, and super-villains - and detailed how he terrified criminals as he prowled the streets under the cover of night. His distinctive wide-brimmed hat and red lined cloak coupled with the crimson scarf that just left his eyes and nose exposed and his dual pistols was a familiar image to readers.




As his popularity grew, "The Shadow" expanded into his own radio dramas in 1937, starring a 22-year old Orson Welles as wealthy socialite Lamont Cranston, the vigilante's civilian identity (confusingly, his real name is Kent Allard). It's here that he first exhibited the ability to 'cloud men's minds' so that he could effectively become invisible and where Margo Lane - Cranston's love interest, crime-fighting partner and the only person to know his secret identity - was introduced (the novels did not include her til four years later). After Welles, a succession of other fine voice actors followed and between 1937 and 1954, "The Shadow" was a Sunday night staple of the Mutual Radio Network across the USA.


The same year saw the first film - "The Shadow" Strikes", starring Rod La Rocque in the title role. This was quickly followed by a sequel - "International Crime" - and then a 15-episode serial with Victor Jory. Monogram Pictures then produced a trio of B-movie style features in 1946. The last film for nearly forty years was 1958s "Invisible Avenger" which was actually two episodes of an un-transmitted television show which were spliced together.



"The Shadow" has naturally been adapted for comics several times during his long history. The first time was as a daily newspaper strip between 1940 and 1942 where the plots were adapted from the Walter Gibson pulps. Publishers Street & Smith got in on the act themselves with "Shadow Comics" which lasted 101 issues until 1949. Archie Comics did eight issues in the 1960s which inexplicably turned the character into a blonde superhero in a green and blue costume! In the mid-1970s, DC Comics published a more authentic and atmospheric interpretation as a 12-issue series from writer Dennis O'Neill and artist Michael Kaluta (followed by Frank Robbins and E.R. Cruz). This was extremely well-regarded and also included a team-up with another pulp creation, "The Avenger".



The Shadow also got to meet Batman in the pages of that hero's title, where Bruce Wayne called the crime fighter "his greatest inspiration" - something that was true in the real world too, as co-creator Bill Finger had used elements of the classic mystery man in the development of the Dark Knight. Batman's first story was even loosely based on the Shadow story "Partners of Peril". The second team-up a few issues later even revealed that Kent Allard saved Wayne's life when he was a child.

So by the time we hit the mid-80s, we had a crime fighter who had been around for more than fifty years across multi-media platforms. Yet somehow I had never read a single one of his adventures in prose or comics, nor seen or heard any of the various adaptations. I think it had all been too far in the past or I was too young - I was only six when the O'Neill / Kaluta series was published and the black and white serial was not shown on the BBC in the school holidays like the Buster Crabbe "Flash Gordon" epics. Beyond being aware of the name, "The Shadow" and a vague idea of his literary origins, he was a blank canvas to me.

That soon changed however, via the controversial 1986 mini-series "Blood & Judgement" from "American Flagg" creator Howard Chaykin. Instead of a period piece, this was a sexy, violent re-imagining, which transplanted the nocturnal crime fighter to then-modern-day New York. Crucially however this was not a reboot. It postulated that Lamont Cranston had vanished in the 1950s, only to reappear thirty years later looking not a day older when his former associates were targeted by an assassin. Dealing bloody justice to a sea of criminals, The Shadow was engaged in a desperate race against time to track down his oldest enemy and counter a deadly plan to bring about nuclear armageddon.

I'd been a big fan of Chaykin's work on "American Flagg" and this was very much in the same vein, helped by long-time lettering collaborator Ken Bruzenak. This was a fast-paced, action-filled thriller full of square-jawed men, drop-dead gorgeous women, seedy dens of iniquity and violent death - no wonder it was labelled for mature readers. Yet despite being set in the contemporary USA, it seemed to ooze a certain 1930s style, and I immediately took to the character.

The mini-series was successful enough to warrant an ongoing comic book, but Chaykin was busy elsewhere. Enter writer Andy Helfer (who had been the editor on "Blood and Judgement") and eclectic artist Bill Sienkiewicz, hot off his runs on "New Mutants" and "Elektra: Assassin". Helfer added newcomers to The Shadow's list of agents, as they investigated ever more bizarre cases. The sex quotient was phased out in favour of black humour, which ramped up even more when Kyle Baker came on board as artist with issue eight.

Baker was new to the comics scene at this point. Seminal works like "Why I Hate Saturn" were still in his future, so this was the first time people got to experience his style and see him grow as an artist. I loved his cartoonish renderings and while the series was vastly different to that produced by Chaykin, it still became one of my top monthly reads. Under Helfer and Baker "The Shadow" became a virtual psychopath, little better than some of the villains he fought and their take on the hero and his attitude towards his calling became more and more irreverent - culminating in them killing him off only to resuscitate his head atop a giant robot body.


But rumours had begun to circulate that current copyright owners Condé Nast were not happy with the direction their property was being taken in. Whatever the truth, the popular series was abruptly cancelled with issue 19 and the next "Nuts & Bolts" storyline was never published. It was a sad end to a brilliant comic. Helfer's skewed vision and Baker's cartoon-like stylings were a perfect match. When the character returned in 1989 it was back in his original hunting ground of the 1930s in a more traditional take on the pulp stories. Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto did a competent enough job, but I had moved on to other things by that point and only picked up a couple of issues when it crossed over with "Doc Savage" which DC also published at that time. That would be the end of my involvement with "The Shadow" for five years...

So at last we come to the core of this memory for 1994. Once again the 1930s suspense hero was adapted into a feature film - this time directed by Russell Mulcahy (of "Highlander" fame) and  starring Alec Baldwin as Lamont Cranston and Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Lane, with supporting roles for Ian McKellen and Tim Curry. It combined elements of all the various versions from novels, comic books and radio plays - plus a few new twists of it's own (such as Cranston's ability to mystically conjure a totally different face when he is out on the prowl as "The Shadow").



Unlike the much earlier tongue-in-cheek adaptation of "Doc Savage", this pulp film is more straight-laced, building a downbeat origin story for the masked crimefighter - with just a touch of "Doctor Strange" to it - and crafting a reason for him to stalk the mean streets with his cape, wide-brimmed hat, silver pistols and maniacal laugh. Cranston is also a ruthless individual who coerces those he saves into joining his team of operatives - everything is in service of his war on crime. Yet he's a tormented soul, who seems confused about who he really is. At one point during a conversation with Margo Lane he proclaims "I dreamed I tore all the skin off my face and was somebody else underneath"...

The villain for the film is the pulp novels re-occurring mastermind, Shiwan Khan (John Lone) - who I had come across previously in the DC comics. A direct descendant of the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan, he has telepathic, hypnotic and mind-controlling powers and is very much the Moriarty to Lamont Cranston's Sherlock Holmes, having had similar training by Tibetan monks. Khan intends to dominate New York by both scientific and mystical means and only The Shadow and his associates can stop him.




Visually the film is incredible, with a sumptuous Art Deco New York as it's centrepiece, replete with towering city blocks, vintage cars, period costumes and swirling mist. It really does evoke the feel of the time the original stories were written. Clearly there is *some* influence from the superhero movies that came just a few years before - Burton's "Batman" immediately come to mind - yet "The Shadow" manages to plow its own furrow in most areas and in some harks back to the more absurdist take on the Dark Knight from the classic Adam West series of 1966 - the nuclear bomb in the finale is a giant pinball that careers across a tilting floor and down a maze of hallways.... 

The modest SFX are also very good. Sure they might look a little dated to today's audiences, but to be honest, even though today's CGI wizardry might enable directors to put actors into any scenario or backdrop, there is something rather 'special' about pre-digital matte paintings and optical effects. Maybe it's just my generation.

Are there some liberty's taken with the source material in the transition to celluloid? Probably. But you have to remember that at the time I first watched the film I was totally unfamiliar with any of the pre 80s versions - and those certainly weren't afraid to tinker with the perceived lore built up over the past decades! Maybe that helped me embrace the fun and excitement when so many others had problems with it. Sure the story is hardly original and some of the dialogue might be a bit dramatically overstated, but what do you want from a pre-war mystery magazine adaptation? It was never going to be a Shakespearean classic. It helps that it's also well cast, with Baldwin in particular doing well in the dual roles - effortless charm as the playboy socialite by day and all gravel voice and dark obsession by night, as he strikes fear into the heart of the criminal fraternity.

What really works for me is that it genuinely feels like a live-action recreation of the comics I had loved, albeit transposed back to the original 1930s milieu. It's not grim and gritty or grounded in the real world - and is all the better for it. Everything just works and you can sit back and enjoy a rip-roaring high-action old-school adventure. It's unapologetic good fun.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows !


Honourable mentions:
  • Starman - James Robinson's new take on the son of one of DC's original Golden Age heroes manages to not only tell a mature and original story but also weave the history of every single character ever to bear the name into the narrative in a way that made total sense. It's a masterclass in using DC's rich legacy to create a new hero for the modern day. Themes of nostagia, age, collecting and the aftereffects of violence permeated the whole 6 year run and it's a testament to the power of Robinson's work that no-one has attempted to resurrect Jack Knight in the years since the series reached it's natural end. Definitely one of my top 20 comics.
  • Inside The Actor's Studio - I'll admit that I didn't get to see this show until Sky's satellite channels started broadcasting episodes in the UK - and by then it had been running for several years - but I soon became addicted to the programme and it's simple format. Every week, James Lipton - Dean Emeritus of the  Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York -  interviews the worlds biggest film and television actors, taking them and us through their careers from humble beginnings to the present day. These are not promotional chats, but in-depth conversations about their life and work and Lipton's meticulous research is legendary. Sure, sometimes things can get a little cosy and verge on the fawning but more often than not you find that actors really open up to Lipton and reveal real insights into their personalities, life and the way they approach acting. It's always fascinating stuff, not to mention the amazing fact that Lipton is still going strong at 90 years of age.
  • True Lies - Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a lot of good movies but this is one of my favourites because it manages to so successfully blend action and humour. Arnold plays a computer salesman whose real life as a government super spy is a secret from his wife and family - a sort-of "what if James Bond was married?" scenario.  Cue lots of explosions, fights and cheesy one liners but layered with romance and a knowing wink at its own ridiculousness. It helps that Arnold is ably supported by Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Arnold and of course James Cameron behind the lens.
  • Caliban's Hour - Another entry for Tad Williams, but this is a much slimmer volume compared with his door-step sized fantasy epics. It's a sequel to Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (always one of my top plays from the bard), which sees the monstrous looking Caliban forcing a captive Miranda to listen to the dark tale of his origins and the magical and terrible things which led him to a life of villainy - although maybe things are not quite as black and white as they first seemed. Caliban presents his version of events, which offer a new perspective on the original play and many details are expanded upon, turning him almost into a sort of anti-hero. It's a brilliant examination of one of Shakespeare's most famous characters and although knowing something of the original text is helpful it's not essential.

  • Donkey Kong Country - I never owned a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). But my young brother-in-law to be did. When I went to visit the in-laws in the period leading up to my wedding, he and I bonded over video games  - and the one we played the most was this classic from the constantly innovative Rare Studios. As they had for the ZX Spectum in the 80s as "Ultimate Play The Game", they pushed the boundaries of console technology to produce a side-scrolling platformer with gameplay and graphics that far outstripped the competition. We played it a lot (well, as much as my fiancee would allow) and my love for the game was a big factor when I came to choose the Nintendo 64 as my next console. I even bought the remake for the Wii so I could wallow in the nostalgia...