Thursday, January 08, 2009

Fun Fifty of 2008: Part 2 of 5

The Archies, ladies and gentlemen! The Archies! Let's give 'em a big, big hand for that beautiful musical number, a special salute to that spice we all like to call...sugar. Thanks, guys! It was great of you to get Ronnie out of rehab for the reunion!

Welcome back, everyone, to the Third Annual Fun Fifty of the Year, as presented by me, Bully! Before the commercial you saw the dramatic twists and turns we came across counting down from fifty to forty-one, and in keeping with that theme, let's kick this show back into gear! In the words and the voice of Shaggy and Robin the Boy Wonder, "Here's number forty on our countdown!"

#40: MAD SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON SPECIAL EDITION "The best things in life are free," sang Barrett Strong, and he oughta know...he co-wrote "Heard it Through the Grapevine." But he never got his picture on a bubblegum card, and he never went to Comic-Con San Diego, where he coulda picked up a free copy of MAD magazine's special, which features The Usual Gang of Idiots spoofing America's favorite gathering of the comics fans, Stormtroopers, Gothic Lolitas and little stuffed bulls! There's a funny "Comic-Con Bingo" where you score points if you can locate a Homeless Man Mistaken For Alan Moore, a Huge Campaign for a Doomed Movie (hellllo, Frank Miller!), A Forgotten Celebrity, or MADman Sergio Aragones! Speaking of which, Sergio has contributed four full-color pages of silent strips set at Comic-Con! But the main attraction is a dead-on spoof of Watchmen (entitled, in the grand MAD manner, "Botchmen"). Written by Desmond Devlin and Drawn by Glenn Fabry in a perfect Dave Gibbons imitation, it manages to be a satire not only of everybody's favorite graphic novel featuring Rorshach™ but also a parody of the movie nobody's even seen yet! Plus, just like the real modern-day MAD, plenty of ads! And the price? FREE! (Cheap!)

#39: FREDDIE & ME One of these days I shall write a grand opus of a graphic novel about my life and times spent listening to the CDs of Miss Jane Wiedlin. I shall call it..."Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing...Called Love." Until then, however, enjoy Mike Dawson's autobiographic novel Freddie & Me about his life-long obsession with the rock band Queen and their outrageous, charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury. The parallel narrative of his family and the history of Queen are warm and sensitive, celebrating the importance of music and hero worship, in naturalistic narration and dialogue, and expressive and dynamic art that reminded me of Joe Sacco's powerful graphic journalism. You don't have to be a Queen fan to enjoy Freddie & Me—Mike's experiences and encounters with love, life, and death will be familiar to anyone who's worshipped a hero from afar. But if your toes start tapping and your head starts bobbing when you hear the opening chords of "Fat Bottomed Girls" or "I Want to Break Free," well then, you'll coin a phrase..."Radio Ga-Ga" over it.

#38: FRANKLIN RICHARDS Chris Eliopoulos and Marc Sumerak brought us four reality-spanning adventures this past year of the most Fantastic kid of 'em all: Franklin Richards (son of Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Woman) and his harried robotic nursemaid H.E.R.B.I.E. The plots are generally pretty simple and similar: Franklin gets into one of his dad's crazy inventions despite H.E.R.B.I.E.'s warnings, and manages to wreak havoc for several pages before putting things back before earning a rubbery spanking. This Franklin's more energetic, mischievous, and fun that his Earth-616 counterpart, and I vote that we replace the whining and moody kid of Marvel-Earth with this one, who knows how to have a good time even if it destroys the Baxter Building. 2008's quartet of Franklin Fun featured stand-out issues where Franklin faced off against his meddling Skrull imposter (proving you don't have to be Norman Osborn to put the hurt on a bumpy-chinned green alien) and in the super-saga full-book story in Franklin Richards: Sons of Geniuses, he accidentally unlocks a dimensional portal that brings dozens of alternate universe Franklins to Marvel-Earth: super-hero Fantastic Frank, Ape Franklin, green alien Franklin, and even Francine Richards. Aiee! If there's anything worse than supervillains, it's girls! Never worry: as usual, Frank 'n' H.E.R.B.I.E. save the day, and at the same time provide us with a light and colorful romp through one of the fun corners of the Marvel Universe where, even if a, crosses over, we know it's gonna be for laughs rather than shock value.

#37: FUTURAMA COMICS Good news, everyone! Every year on the Fun Fifty I mention the love I have for Bongo Comics and their flagship Simpsons books, but I always forget to mention that their other Matt Groening cartoon book, Futurama Comics, is a particular fave of mine. Well, forgotten no more, Phillip J. Fry, Turanga Leela, and all the rest! I don't read many media tie-in Buffy Season Eight or Hardball with Chris Matthews: The Comic Book for me, and I'm most certainly not allowed to pick up A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila Comics and Stories. (Neither is anyone else, says the Board of Health.) But I never miss an issue of Futurama, the official comic book of the thirty-first century. If you've seen the series or any of its follow-up movies, you know the routine: the adventures of the Planet Express Delivery team in the year 3008. Highlights this past year featured a flashback to the famous "Less Than Hero" episode in which Fry, Leela and Bender became superheroes, Bender turning an entire planet into a themed gambling world (theme: himself), and a plot by the Evil Robot Santa to take over Earth using robot Santa's Helpers as his slave. (Featuring a kool Kirby-style kover!) The writers and artists capture the look, feel, humor and pacing of the show uncannily: you can hear the voices of the characters practically coming out of the page. Dense with funny dialogue and jokes, Futurama Comics delivers.

#36: MARVEL APES Okay, I admit it: I almost missed out on this one. I picked up issue #1 of this four-part miniseries based on the premise: a planet where superapes evolved from men! (Hmmm, that would make a catchy movie.) When ineffectual Earth-616 minor mutant menace Marty Blank, The Gibbon, falls into an alternate world where every intelligent being is a member of the ape family, Marty thinks he's at long last come home: accepted by the Mighty Apevengers as a member and a hero. That is, until he finds out his idol, the ape version of Captain America, is a killer and a vampire. Eek! This was the point I nearly gave up the series, disgusted with how even a light and fun concept could be made dark by modern Marvel. But curiosity got me to pick up subsequent issues, and I'm pleased I did: there's dark moments, yes, but the villains are faced by true heroes, and there's an explanation behind the villainy that doesn't sully the name of Captain America and provides a happy ending (and the possibility of a sequel) for Marty and pals. After too long seeing gruesome zombie-infested alternative Marvel Earths, Marvel Apes was as tasty and delicious as a banana...with plenty of "a-peel."

#35: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Curse you, Joe were right all along! Sure, you took a dumbass, out of character path to getting rid of Mary Jane's marriage to Peter...instead of the time-honored tradition of tossing her off a bridge...but the Brand New Day-era has returned fun and adventure to Spidey, not to mention making it easier to remember what Spider-Man comic you want to pick up and when: Amazing Spider-Man, most every week! The three-times monthly schedule has allowed a rotating crew of artists and writers to come aboard and work on Marvel's flagship character, providing a fresh new mini-arc every month, so if ya don't care for this issue's writing, art, or plot...hang on, we'll have something new swingin' across town from you in a few weeks! Not every ish trickled my fancy, but a lot of them did, with standouts being a Punisher crossover and the six-ish "New Ways to Die." Sure, it was a Spider-mega event, but it was over in two months and didn't leave us scratching our heads wondering which one was real and which one was the clone. Nothing deep here, just good old-fashioned primal web-swingin, wise-crackin' fun.

#34: THE BLUE BEETLE RADIO SHOW His radio adventures thrilled the wartime audiences: a superhero who battled saboteurs, mad scientists, drug peddlers and Nazis, all while wearing a mask colorful mystery man costume. Whozat? Batman? Captain America? Ma Hunkel, the Red Tornado? No! (But darnit, Ma Hunkel shoulda had a radio series!) It's the superhero you never knew had a radio show, Blue Beetle! Well, I never knew he had a radio show, at least not until I discovered the Blue Beetle Vintage Radio podcast! This is Golden Age Beetle Dan Garrett (Ted Kord and Jaime Reyes aren't even a twinkle in an eye yet), based on the 1940s Fox comic book, so the emphasis is on derring-do, fisticuffs, chilling cliffhangers and radio studio sound effects (watch out for the cornstarch!) You can read more about the show here, but what you wanna do is listen to 'em, right? Right! Fire up your iTunes by heading to this link to download 24 different episodes of Blue Beetle, or, if you don't have iTunes, you can download or listen to the shows here. These shows from 1940 may not technically quality as something fun for 2008, but just like old comics, whenever you discover 'em for the first time...that's the Golden Age.

#33: FANTASTIC FOUR There's much more to Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Fantastic Four than a cosmetic change to the covers (although that's pretty neat too): Millar (previously on Ultimate FF) has cranked up both the science and soap opera aspects of the classic Marvel quartet, and Hitch's beautifully realistic (without looking lightbox-traced) artwork excels at portraying both facial expression and galactic conflict. These stories are divided into four-issue arcs that plunge the FF into new adventures against new enemies, but the past isn't forgotten either: Galactus, Doc Doom, and the wisecracking Ben Grimm all get their chance in the solar flare. I may quibble about a subplot or two (Ben, have you totally forgotten Alicia?) and the occasional issue lacking any sort of physical action at all, but Millar packs his FF with so many cool concepts and clever ideas that it's hard not to be compelled to pick up the next issue: even when your confronted with an "Again? But that trick ever works!" plotline like "The Death of the Invisible Woman," there's always a new twist. Which just goes to prove, the more Things change, the more I wanna read FF.

#32: TORCHWOOD (In 2007: #14) "Oh no!" I shouted in tense nervousness at the BBC America screen while watching Torchwood Series 2. "How are they gonna survive this one...oh. Oh. Oh. Uh oh." Captain Jack Harkness returns from his Doctor Who Series Three crossover episodes (collect 'em all!) to once again lead his Torchwood team against spooks, phantasms, wee ghosties and other things that go bump in the night. Oh, and his murderously vengeful brother, too. Torchwood cranked up the volume this season with even more chilling adventures with a humorous edge: the grotesque but you can't tear your eyes away "Meat" examined why we really oughta all become vegetarians, "To the Last Man" gave Tosh a reason to smile once a year, and Gwen and Rhys's eventual wedding is complicated by an alien invasion in the one place Gwen least expected it. The stand-out storyline is the dramatic mid-season death of Owen Harper, but that's the delightful thing about Torchwood: just because a team member has died doesn't mean that character's not on the show. Still, there's major upheaval and a dramatic "no second chances" final episode, and I dare ya to keep your eyes dry. I'm looking forward to Series Three, but after this one, the show'll never quite be the same.

#31: IRON MAN Holy cow look at that the armor looks like it does in the comic books but even better and Robert Downey Jr is a great and funny actor and oh wow is that really Sam Jackson and geez louise look out Pepper and holy cow he built it in a cave! That's what was goin' through my little stuffed brain, popcorn cooling and forgotten, as I sat on the edge of my seat and watched Iron Man, the most joyful Marvel superhero movie to date. The dialogue is sparkling, the special effects fantastic, the deviations from Marvel "canon" nothing to cry about (if you care about such things), and holy geez look it's Gwyneth Paltrow running in spiked heels. Run, Pepper, run! Give or take an Incredible Hulk aside, if this is the sort of movie the new Marvel Studios is going to bring us, well, I can't wait for Captain America, the Ken Branagh Thor and the all-together-nowness of The Avengers. See, just like the best comic books, a fun comic book movie leaves you breathlessly waiting for the next installment.

Whew! That's a whole lotta fun packed into 2008, and we're not even halfway through our sparkling presentation awards ceremony! Coming up after the commercial break: a special musical salute to 2008's Many Deaths of Janet van Dyne! You don't wanna miss it or anything else in the next installment of...The Fun Fifty of 2008!

1 comment:

Andrew Leal said...

Greetings, most informative and amiable bovine! For the record, in general in the "golden age of radio," heroes who landed their own wireless gig came from newspaper comics, not funnybooks (Superman being the notable exception, and only partial since he was "a copyrighted feature" also appearing in papers, and the insane Pep ads for those swell comic buttons put him company with the Sunday supplement crowd). So, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy, Mark Trail, Mandrake the Magician, Jungle Jim, and plenty more dominated the airwaves; even Batman and Robin had to be content with their recurring guest spots on Superman's show, never getting beyond audition shows (the radio term for what is now called a "pilot").

In general, there isn't a lot of information on the Blue Beetle series. At the time, Hollywood was in fact far from the entertainment capital when it came to the airwaves, with New York and Chicago outproducing them even (due to problems in the "round robin" way shows were relayed along telephone wires, thus making it more expensive to send a show from Hollywood or any other Western station east, as opposed to the other way around), to say nothing of one Detroit station WXYZ (who gave the world the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Yukon King and Sgt. Preston, and the Green Hornet and Kato.) Anyway, Blue Beetle came from New York.

Dan/Blue Beetle was played Frank Lovejoy, who had also played an episodic role on "Superman" in 1938, as a steadfast steamship captain in a tale of arson in a mining company. He was one of radio's busiest actors, often playing tough guy cops but also doing a lot of dramatic narration (especially in wartime shows), later migrating to Hollywood and such films as "I Was a Communist for the FBI" (in the lead role) and "House of Wax."