Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Catch the Wave....Read Aquaman!!

Aquaman is my favorite character. Before I knew who he was it was Batman & Robin, but after I "met" him he took a special place in my heart and never let it go.

Why? Why is some blonde swimmer in orange and green my favorite fictional character?

I honestly have no idea!

I've been told that I almost drowned at a Holiday Inn pool when I was about two years old. I don't remember this, but perhaps, sub-consciously I do? If that had anything to do with it, though, I would think I'd also like Marvel's aquatic hero, Namor the Sub-Mariner. And I don't, really. Maybe it's harder for a nerd who is teased repeatedly as a kid to openly like a Spock-type in a speedo? I mean, I always thought his  look was a BIT much...or not enough, if you know what I mean. So there is that.

As we head into a new year, Aquaman has his own comic book for the first time in five years. Not only that, but he is a vibrant, dynamic character who takes no gruff. His writer is the current "hot" writer, Geoff Johns and "hot" artist, Ivan Reis. Also, he is an active member in the Justice League again after many, many years off that stage. that book is also by Johns and drawn by another long-time fan favorite, Jim Lee. Things are going well for him again. And as an unabashed Aquaman-fan, I can't be MORE excited about this.

As you read this I am in Japan enjoying being back "home" after several years away. I'm probably reading Japanese manga and drinking too much Asahi Super Dry bi-ru. But when I return to the States in January, one of the first things I'll do is visit my local comic book shop and pick up my copies of the new issues of Aquaman and Justice League that came out last week. I can hardly wait.

Catch the AQUAMAN! ;-)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Buried Treasures: Extreme "Christmas Time Again"

When the first A Very Special Christmas CD came out in the late 80s I picked it up. I'm a sucker for those Christmas collections; I like a lot of different songs by a lot of different artists, as opposed to, say, Elvis Presley's Christmas Album, haha. Plus I am also a sucker for things done for charities, so the fact that all proceeds from the album went to The Special Olympics just mades it easier for me to buy it. This first one was a *huge* financial and artistic success (John Mellencamp, Whitney Houston, the Pointer Sisters, Bruce Springsteen....I mean, come ON!). So when I saw the second one, I bought it, too. By this time it was 1992 and I was in Japan, so I didn't know a lot of the acts on this one (Michael Bolton? Wilson Phillips? Vanessa Williams?) One group in particular I did not recognize at all: EXTREME. A little digging found that they were the group behind the big hit "More Than Words." So I did know of them after all. I just hadn't realized that they sang that song. Their song on A Very Special Christmas (2) was their own composition called "Christmas Time Again."

It's really what Christmas is (or should be) about, without getting overly sentimental. When their harmonies come in at the end singing "The First Noel," it sends a chill down my spine. I like a lot of Christmas music and hate a lot more, but this one is a keeper.

When I went investigating to try to find a copy of this to share here I realized that it seems to be an unknown gem. It isn't mentioned anywhere in the Extreme wikipedia article or in the producer/writer Nuno Bettencourt's article, either. It looks like it was only available on this one CD. So you have *probably* never heard it! Which is a shame. Give it a listen, please....and let me know what you think.

And maybe one day we CAN have "Christmas all the year."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Holidays!!

By the time you read this I and my family will be in Japan celebrating Christmas, the New Year, the Emperor's Birthday, and our daughter's Coming of Age. So...Happy Holidays to you and yours!

In Japan when you turn 20 you are considered a Legal Adult. And to help celebrate this personal milestone in the Japanese way (in a group) there is the legal holiday, Coming of Age Day. That's when all the young people who turn 20 in the past year get together and get their pictures taken and go out and get drunk celebrate. So since our daughter turned 20 in August, she wanted to go back to her hometown for a government sponsored reunion, and we agreed to take her. 

We'll be back in the US the first week of January. There will be a few more pre-programmed posts here before we get back, but basically I am out of the country and off the radar. :-) 


May you and yours have a wonderful and safe holiday season, and may the new year bring you nothing but good news.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Comics: Long Live the Legion!!!

Hey Kids, Comics! 

In the summer of 1975 I came across the last of my great comic book favorites. In the St. Louis airport on the way to some family trip, I accidentally found myself with a copy of Superboy & The Legion of Super-Heroes #212. The art was the first thing that grabbed my attention; it wasn't the same John Romita-Nick Cardy type covers that I was used to seeing. It was by rising star Mike Grell, who quickly became one of my favorite artists ever. That's his cover on the left.

Unlike the Justice League of America or the Avengers, who have their adventures in the current day, the Legion (LSH for short) exists in the far-flung 30th Century. This issue opened up, literally, a whole new universe of adventures to me. I had thought that the DC universe revolved around Superman and Batman; after reading this issue, I knew that the Legion owned the future. And as a fan of STAR TREK and LOST in SPACE, I loved the idea of a space-based adventure series.  

I don't think I could have asked for a better first issue for me to introduce me to the complicated mythos of The Legion than this issue. Quick recap: the LSH holds open calls for members, but six of these Rejects get together to challenge the right of their fellow countrymen to represent their planets as Legionnaires. So right off the bat I get quick origins for Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, Chameleon Boy, Shrinking Violet, and Matter-Eater Lad, as well as vital story points: each member has a unique ability, members are mostly from different planets, teamwork is important, and nobody hogs the spotlight. This was brought home to me when Chameleon Boy calls Superboy "a super-buttinsky." This never happened in the Justice League!!

When I first discovered the Legion it was in the midst of one of its many "peaks." I eventually found out that the history of the LSH is marked by its "peaks" and "valleys." It was originally created as a throwaway plot device in a Superboy story but the fans wouldn't let the characters die; it fought its way into the lead berth in Adventures Comics where it enjoyed a strong Silver Age run until its editor retired. The new editor didn't like the series and banished it into the back-up position of Action Comics and then Superboy. This lasted for several years until a different editor (and the accounting department) realized that the issues WITH the Legion were selling better than the issues without. Then in Superboy #197, the Legion grabbed the lead spot again, and this time, there was no looking back. This was when the late, great Dave Cockrum was redesigning all of their costumes and their futuristic architecture and machinery. (These are his character references, collected on the cover of THE LEGION ARCHIVE #10.) He is almost single-handedly responsible for the resurgence in the Legion's popularity. Oh, and when he had a fight with the LSH editor, he left DC and went to Marvel to help create The New X-Men. So he wasn't just some no-talented guy! Although it was a shame to lose him, he was replaced by Mike Grell, which is where I came in. 

When I got back to St. Louis I started hunting down Superboy/LSH issues. I not only found #213 but I also found a few older issues. I eventually spent my adoloscence collecting all of the Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell back-issues; when I got the first issue with the Legion taking over Superboy's book (#197) in the mail I let out a little cheer. I even subscribed so that I wouldn't miss any issues. For nearly 20 years, I didn't.

Oh, did I forget to mention that another reason I liked the Legion is because they had 20 members? Yep; they really were legion. Those characters shown above by Dave Cockrum are most of the leads, but there are a good ten more characters not shown here, and that doesn't even consider the Legion of SUBSTITUTE Heroes, who appeared often. So those characters I learned about in #212? They were almost all absent from #213! I'm sure it took me awhile to figure out who all them were. Whenever I read that the Legion mythos was hard to "break into," though, I just shrugged. I never had any problem picking the stuff up as I went along, but maybe that was because I started with a story that was so accessible.

I think one reason that DC used Superboy as a "hook" was because none of the other characters were anybody, and didn't tend to appear in every issue. So until the group proved their worth to the comic-buying audience, Superboy's name stayed on the mast-head. The book's name was changed legally to Superboy AND the Legion (#231) in 1977 and then two years later his name was dropped completely: they booted him out, as "his" book was renamed Legion of Super-Heroes with #259.

During all this Mike Grell left and was replaced by James Sherman (who later designed the MLB logo) and then a long list of different "permanent" artists. Paul Levitz came in as the lead writer and tried to make the Legion book into more of a space opera and less of a "Super Friends in Space." He did a pretty good job, in my opinion. His run's highlight was the most ambitious LSH story arc up to that time: the Earthwar Saga, where the evil alien race in the LSH continuity (The Khunds) lead an all-out attack on Earth (they fail, by the way). During his run he also wrote the first Legion wedding as well as a death of a Legionnaire: Chemical King, one of my favorites, died to prevent the beginning of another World War (seven, I think it was). :-(

After Levitz left, the series fell into one of its "valleys" again. There were a few good stories, but in general this era was marked by silliness (The Genie of Space), mistakes (Brainiac 5 Goes Insane?), and just plain bad (the whole "death" of Ultra Boy and the debut of Reflecto). This was not a good time to be a Legion fan.

Then, in 1982, Paul Levitz came back to the book. He announced that he was determined to do a *better* job than he had done before. He brought with him two stellar artists, Pat Broderick and Keith Giffen. Although Broderick left after only a few issues, Giffen stayed. Together they ushered in what all LSH fans consider to be one of the best runs in the history of the series. They kicked off their run with one of the all-time best Legion stories ever, "The Great Darkness Saga." If you haven't read it and you like science fiction and super-heroes, and this article hasn't completely befuddled you, and you perhaps recognize the famous face shown here, then you definitely should read it.

Giffen stayed long enough to help create a new "direct market" only LSH title for the then-new "comic book shop" market. For about a year, there were two LSH books, as the "news-stand" series marched on as the Baxter Book (named after the better paper used in the printing) also told new stories. Giffen left just as he was finished plotting the death of Karate Kid at the hands of the Legion of Super-Villains. (Yes, we haven't even talked about their villains. They, too, were legion.) He was  replaced by another of my favorites, Steve Lightle. It was Lightle who helped design two of my favorite Legionnaires, Tellus and Sensor Girl. Tellus was famous because he was the first (and for awhile ONLY) true "alien" Legionnaire. Although every member was from a different planet, 99% of them were humanoids (and 75% were white, but that's another story). Steve Lightle came on and *requested* a character design that was not humanoid. The character that eventually became Tellus was so popular that Levitz and Lightle decided to make him into an actual Legionnaire. As a "fish out of water" myself (atleast in my own mind?) I really enjoyed reading about how this fish-monster-thing was getting along as a police officer to the galaxy.

And as for Sensor Girl....another candidate for Best LSH Story Arc Of All Time has to be the "Who Is Sensor Girl?" story from 1986. She joined in the same Open Call for New Legionnaires that brought in Tellus, but unlike all other Legionnaires, she was masked and kept her identity secret. No one knew who she was under her mask! There were plenty of ideas and theories before her identity was finally revealed in a story that ended with the death of another hero. This was the Space Opera that Levitz had been aiming for. Even now, 20-plus years later, this story stands up as a wonderful mystery. In fact, best-selling author Brad Meltzer has admitted that as a reader he *loved* this story. I don't blame him. 

Steve Lightle only stayed about one year because he found his intricate designs took too long for a monthly series. When he left he remained the main cover artist (#25 above; btw that's Tellus on the middle left and Sensor Girl in the center). The interior art was taken over by Greg LaRoque, who stayed for approximately three years. Then Giffen came back, and when that happened Levitz decided he could hand "his" book off to his old partner. So in 1989 the Paul Levitz Legion era came to an end. 

All of the Legionnaires before the Levitz era ended
(click on it to inflate it ala Bouncing Boy)

The series, which had always been positive and optimistic, turned dark and somber under Giffen's tenure. The heroes lost their costumes and their main "hero" names. They went underground. The United Planets were at war. Characters were murdered. The Earth was destroyed. Not a very pleasant universe.

I kept reading for a few years,  but my heart was no longer in it. The Legion I had loved was gone. When the series was re-booted by DC in another attempt to fix their convoluted continuity, I dropped out. I've come back a few times and dipped my toe in the water, but in general when I need a Legion Fix I read the LSH Archives collecting *all* of the Silver Age and Bronze Age stories, or I read my own back-issues. Although the Legion is set in the future, for me their best days are in the past.

(and yes, I recognize ALL of these characters, haha,
click on it to Colossal Boy size it) 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

JLA # 12 "War With The One-Man Justice League!" AFTERWARD

So...what did you think?
Okay, it's no classic ala the comic on the left, but as my amateur comic series goes, I think I did an acceptable job adapting it to my world.

First, I just recently noticed that I switched themes for the two covers for the two parts of this story. In the real JLA comic book the action pose was on the cover of JLA #111 and the "posed" shot was on #112. Mine, of course, were reversed: I had Amazo actually fighting the JLA on number 12 and the Injustice Gang just standing there on number 11. I don't think I thought of that when I did them.

Secondly, obviously I didn't have The Elongated Man as a member whose power was missing, so in his stead I used Martian Manhunter, who has "unique abilities" that Amazo could also absorb. I thought this turned out alright, because it also gave him mental telepathy to verify the heroes' plot later in the story.

Speaking of changing the members around, as I mentioned in the FORWARD, the original story featured The Atom and The Red Tornado. Because I didn't have either of those characters, I switched in Wonder Woman and Hawkwoman. If you've read the original then you can judge whether my choices "worked" or not. In my opinion, Red didn't put up much of a fight against Amazo, so Hawkwoman comes across as more of a challenge to him. And The Atom...he didn't fight Amazo at all, he simply tried to keep the "cure" out of his hands. So I think Wonder Woman was a better choice there, too. but I would be interested to hear if you disagree.

I also liked the different angles and panel sizes I played with in this issue. Besides the whole Aquaman sequence (which is too big to reprint here, go look at it on pages 23-26) I liked the Martian Manhunter stretching scenes (shown above) and the Hawkwoman-takes-to-the-air scene shown on the left. When I re-read these stories as I scan them in I am hit by the good design of things like this. Whether my art is good or not, I do think I have a pretty good "eye." ;-)  

I really liked how I broke up the heroes in chapters and used their logos. In fact, ever since I saw that happening in this 1974 comic I've been a fan of it. So of course I did it in every story that had set "chapters." In this issue, though, because half-wit Batman didn't get to go back
down to Earth, that left his logo out. I had to copy-machine the logos and had Batman's on the same sheet as everyone else's, so I decided that when he made his dramatic debut later in the story....voila, he had a logo. I liked how that worked. It really gave you the impression that Amazo was shocked to see him, I thought. By the way, Batman has had more than a dozen different logos, but my favorite by far is this Neal Adams design. Second favorite is the Carmine Infantino version with the cape pulled up to his face.

Speaking of Batman, as a DC Comics JLA fan, I always thougtht that Batman got the spotlight to the detriment of several of the other members. For example, for a loooooong time in JLA history he and Superman would appear in EVERY issue. I can see this of characters like The Flash and Superman, who have super-speed, but the Batman!?! He's supposed to be millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne AND patrol Gotham City. When the heck does he have time to fight Kanjar Ro for the umpteenth time?! Likewise, once characters like The Elongated Man and Red Tornado join the JLA, really, what BETTER things are they doing so that they are missing so many adventures!?! I always thought those two in particular should have would have been at every meeting because, I mean, they're both basically self-employed, right? Ralph
Dibny doesn't even have a secret identity. I would have thought he would jump at the chance to be at every JLA meeting. But I point is, I wanted EVERY member to shine, and since Batman and Superman were already very well known to my audience (Japanese ages 5 to 50) I wanted to play them down. However, here is a story where Batman shows/proves that he is a member for a specific reason: he's awesomely intelligent! So with this story, I think the whole membership had been given chances to shine, and I decided to move on to my first membership drive.

Take a good long look at these top candidates for membership. If you are a fan of the JLA you'll recognize something very obvious: four of the five of these heroes ended up eventually joining the JLA. The question then is, in what order am I going to have them join? Haha, come back next issue to see how I handled that.
And lastly, in the Story of Amazo featurette at the end of the story, I took the opportunity to show my audience that the Justice League had been around a while. I didn't reprint the panel here, but in one shot I showed The Flash in his TV-show themed costume. If I ever included any FLASH TV show episodes in my English Video Library I wanted it established that Barry Allen *did* look like that when he first started. Also I enjoyed showing Hawkgirl in her "original" costume, as well as Green Arrow and Wonder Woman. And of course, John Stewart with an Afro. Haha. (Blink and you'll miss the cameo by The Atom below. He'll appear again next issue.)

JLA # 12 EXTRA: "The Story of Amazo!"

Right now we're going to present a special segment called
"The Story of Amazo!" 

Amazo was made several years ago by Professor Ivo. His original purpose was to absorb life energy.

Actually, he was like an energy vampire. He absorbed life force from long-living animals in order to become immortal!

The professor's plan was to transfer *his* brain into Amazo's body so that he himself could be immortal!

However, I investigated the murders of several turtles and became involved.
I saved the turtles but I wasn't as strong as Amazo. I was unable to capture him.

Then I called the Justice League. We had only just recently formed.

Amazo accidentally realized he could absorb our super-powers--- and left us to die!

However, using our weaknesses we fought Amazo one more time. Using Martian Manhunter's weakness to fire and Green Lantern's weakness to the color yellow we were able to defeat him.

From then on, Amazo has come back to fight us several times. It's always quite a battle to defeat him...and because he is intelligent, we can never use the same battle strategy twice!
After the last time we fought, we put him in the safest place we could think of...."sleeping" in our Justice League space station....until we woke him up today!  

Green Arrow's original uniform on the left (shown on page 44)
Green Arrow's Winter uniform (shown on pages 19-20)
Wonder Woman's original uniform (shown on pages 42-44)
Hawkwoman's original uniform (page 44)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bruce Springsteen "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"

My all-time favorite Christmas song.

My all-time favorite version. RIP Mr. Clarence Clemmons. You are missed. :-(

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Russell's Ken-Bun-Ki June 6, 1996 Listening Power (2)

Note: This article was written with native Japanese trying to learn English in mind, but it is equally true for any native speaker trying to learn any foreign language. 

Last week's article was for the kids. This week's article is for the adults.

Japanese study English for, at minimum, three years in Junior High School. Most study in Junior High and in High School, for a total of six years. I think most people know the basic grammar and some vocabulary. Therefore, using those six years as a base, those people who have an interest in English should be able to improve easily. Let me explain the best three methods to improve.

1. Live in a foreign country
If you are in an environment surrounded by English you will definitely improve. This is the method I am using to improve my Japanese (and  Miyazaki dialect), day by day. However, as a practical choice this is the most difficult method.

2. Talk constantly with visiting foreigners
my motto is, "Do not be afraid of making mistakes when trying to master a foreign language." Failure is the root of all success. It's okay to learn from your mistakes. People who are too shy to try will not improve.

3. Listen to as many foreign songs and watch as many foreign movies and videos as you can
Japanese-dubbed movies don't help you learn any English. At our Cultural Hall we have approximately 100 English language videos. These are without Japanese sub-titles. These are a great way to improve your listening abilities. Also, we have videos that show English sub-titles instead of Japanese. Thse you can listen to the English while reading along. It's a great learning tool. Please watch videos where you know the story or that you have seen before. If you are interested, please come to the Social Education office. These videos are available to borrow at no cost. They are a good way for those people who don't have enough time to join an English Conversation class to try to study English on their own. 

(click on the article to Sumo-size it)

POST-SCRIPT: These articles were written in 1996. Sometimes the content is dated (see our next installment about the 1996 World Cup as prime evidence) but the message of this one, like the first part from last week,  has not changed whatsoever. As the world continues to get smaller and communication becomes closer and closer to "instantaneous," more and more people should be learning foreign languages. I'm happy to say that there are now many more Japanese-speaking foreigners in the world than there were in 1996. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Seven Most-Famous Super-Heroes?

QUICK! Before looking any farther, answer this question:

Who do YOU think are the seven most well known Super Heroes?

Let's all assume Superman, Batman, and Spiderman are in the top three....but who fills out the the remaining fantastic four? The answer may surprise you.

Recently I have been thinking about the term "The Magnificent Seven," especially as it pertains to comic book characters. We DC fans basically use it to describe the founding members of the Justice League: in alphabetical order these seven heroes came together and formed that illustrious group: Aquaman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Ever since, these characters have resided in a special place in the hearts of DC fans.

However....having said that, there is still quite a lot of argument discussions about whether these characters deserve to be called "The Magnificent Seven." I mean, do you out there even know who The Martian Manhunter is? If you're reading this, then, well, probably, but the point is valid. If the JLA is The Magnificent Seven and if Batman is Steve McQueen, who is Charles Bronson? ;-)

DC fans refer to you-know-who as The Big Three. Everyone agrees who they are, no question. The discussions are always about who deserves to fill out the rest of the A List, or, as some would have it, who stands ready to serve on The B List.

Of course, "Super Heroes" are not just DC characters. You're not alone if you think of Iron Man before you think of Aquaman. (You're breaking my heart, but you're not alone.) Marvel has more than matched DC with their stable of characters becoming nationally (world?) famous. Or they've certainly tried, anyway, especially recently. As a rabid Aquaman fan, I am of course going to try to convince you that he belongs on The B List. On the other hand, I'm crazy but I'm not ignorant. I know that Hollywood "stars" like Thor (movie) and Green Arrow (Smallville) have more "pop culture" cred than Aquaman currently does.

Or do they? I decided to take a very unscientific poll. I decided to ask my co-workers and my Facebook friends to name the first five super heroes they could and then I would tally up the results.

I asked a mix of men and women, of various ages between 18 and 45ish (I didn't ask!). I ended up with 50 total participants.

And since the majority of non-comics people don't know the difference between DC and Marvel, I usually got a happy mix of "super-heroes." I got Spiderman and Superman, Captain America and Batman,  Underdog and James Bond. Oh, there definitely were "DC People" and "Marvel People," whether they knew it or not. And there were Hollywood people, naming only those characters who have made it to the big screen ("Catwoman"?!). 

I asked for "the first five super-heroes who came to mind" and therefore gave the first mentioned 5 points, the second 4 points, and so on down the line. Several of my friends made comments such as "Aquaman, because of you" or "I was going to say Aquaman but only because of you, so I didn't." Both were okay. I totally anticipated that the Aquaman votes would be skewered high.

So now, without further ado, here are the top ten heroes and their points:   
Superman          170
Batman             158
Spiderman           82
Wonder Woman 57
Aquaman            54
Green Lantern    47
Iron Man             17
Robin                  17
The Flash            16
Captain America 15

This, to me, means that heroes that have been around for forever have a deeper, nay, stronger pop culture "footprint" than some of the more recent additions. Basically, everyone I asked has seen or knows of The Super Friends, haha! To compare, the X-Men, who were all the rage in the last ten years, got only 6 points total, and that's when I add Cyclops, Wolverine, and Storm to their mix. Likewise, the Fantastic Four (who probably also suffered from "group" identity, got 7 points but only when joined with The Human Torch (3 and 4, respectively). So although Captain America has been around as long as Aquaman and Wonder Woman in the comics, his movie/TV/cartoon presence has been markedly lower than theirs.  

To round out the rest of the list of charactes who got more than one mention:
Underdog       10
Green Arrow    9
Silver Surfer     7
Wonder Twins 6
Hulk                4
Thor                4

This last part of the poll really confused me, as I anticipated that Thor and Hulk would have more of a precence. One voter actually asked, "Is the Hulk a hero?" Perhaps non-comic people didn't think of the recent Thor movie as being about a super-hero as being about a mythological character? If that is the case then maybe next years The Avengers will help raise his profile.  On the other hand, Iron Man and Captain America both had movies in the last two years and yet they couldn't get past Green Lantern? (Even though thier movies were much better than his was, haha!)  And I guess there's a reason Underdog is in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade; I didn't realize so many people loved him! He's the highest ranking character who isn't actually a COMIC-BOOK super-hero, having made his debut on TV before getting a comic-book.

For the completists out there, here are the remaining characters who got mentioned in the voting:
5 Points (first choice):
James Bond, Luke Cage
4 Points (second choice):
Optimus Prime, Kick Ass, Human Torch, Mighty Isis
3 Points (third choice):
Power Girl, Wolverine, Catwoman, Mighty Mouse, Fantastic Four, The Tick, Dazzler, Plastic Man
2 Points (fourth choice):
Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ant-Man, Captain Marvel/Shazam, Dr. Strange, Ultraman, Hawkman
1 Point (fifth choice):
X-Men, Cyclops, Storm, Mr. Incredible, Wonder Dog, Firestorm

So where does that leave Aquaman? I could subtract 10% of his total and he would still be in fifth place. Even if I cut him off half the lists he appeared on he would still only drop to sixth place! So...does that mean I hang out with people who know enough about comics to know who Aquaman is? Maybe. However, if we look at the actual votes, only four people chose him as their first choice. The majority (yes, the majority) picked him as their number four or five. So I think he's like a favorite character- actor...a Paul Rudd if you will...who you enjoy when you see him but you don't necessarily go to see HIM. 

That's my theory and I'm sticking to it. :-) (And I can say this because I like both Aquaman AND Mr. Rudd. So no negative comments about this, please!)

I did get some odd responses. Obviously the Wonder Twins touched a chord in many people's hearts. I had no idea! One guy swears James Bond is a super-hero. (If Batman is, then Bond is, too, he reasoned.) Another told me that he wasn't going to pick Batman or Iron Man because if having money makes you a super-hero, then Bill Gates should be much more interesting than he is. Someone chose Wonder Dog and I wondered if she meant Underdog, but since there IS a Wonder Dog....she voted for him! One woman chose The Mighty Isis, which made me think of Joanna Cameron for the first time in a loooong time. :-)  Best answer was from my friend John, who listed out four super-fictional characters and then picked his late father as his number five.

did Terry Huddleston *know* something when he drew this?!

Thanks to all participants and to you for reading. If you disagree or have an opinion, please feel free to share it with us.

This is the second article in a series I am going to call "The Magnificent Seven." I am going to look at "My Seven Favorite (topic)" and write about them, hopefully on a semi-regular basis.  I hope you enjoy it...and if you have a suggestion for me to write about, please let me know! :-)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The *Other* Avengers

I can't remember when I first saw the TV show "The Avengers." It had to have been after 1974 because I remember already being familiar with the comic-book group with that name and being somewhat confused that THIS group had nothing to do with THAT group. (see this article if you aren't familiar with them.) I seem to recall watching the reruns on CBS on Friday (?) nights at 10:30 pm after our local news. Was this one of CBS' ways to try to battle Johnny Carson over on NBC? If so it worked, atleast at our house! I remember my Dad and I watched the show together. He had seen them when they were first run in the US in 1966-1969, but to me they were all brand new. I remember thinking that Patrick Macnee as John Steed was dapper, debonair, and dangerous. He was the kind of gentleman I wanted to grow up to be. And as for his female partners....what can I say? I grew up with huge crushes on three famous females: The Bionic Woman, Batgirl, and Emma Peel! 

Mrs. Peel, as Steed always called her, was a "talented amateur" to Steed's professional. It was established that her husband had been a pilot who had been killed several years before. She was a scientist and a scholar as well as a black-belt in karate and an Olympic-level fencer. Often when Steed would investigate murders or radicals or mysterious incidents, he would do it as an official representative of Her Majesty's Secret Service. Meanwhile he would have Mrs. Peel planted as an undercover "spy," as a nurse or a secretary or dance teacher or what-have-you. Then, in the same manner as all of the best partners, they would work the case from two sides until they met in the middle, squeezing the bad guy in the process. 

If you have never seen this show, I recommend you try to borrow a DVD from the library or watch some of the episodes on youtube or hulu because I simply can't explain just how GOOD Diana Rigg was. From the first time you see her you totally believe she is what she portrays: smart, sexy, self-confident, and willing and able to kick your ass if you try anything illegal, haha! In the color season especially her bright colored outfits (often dubbed Emma Peelers) and her beautiful auburn hair set many a male heart a-flutter. Even now, for men of a certain generation, if you talk of strong female archetypes you are certain to hear "Emma Peel-like" as a descriptive phrase.   

I've since read several books about "The Avengers" and have heard that Diana Rigg auditioned for the part of Mrs. Peel as a lark, never expecting to get the part. After she did, because she was not a house-hold name *until* "The Avengers," she was paid less than some of the stage crew/staff. In a huff (and rightly so!) she demanded more money and decided to quit after one more year. She has since said that if Patrick Macnee had stood up *with* her against the network bosses etc (he was a co-producer of the show) she would have stayed several more years. Ah, what might have been....!

Although I did not know it at the time, Emma Peel was not John Steed's first partner. I've never actually seen any of the first season (or "series," in British parlance), but at that time Steed's partner was Dr. Keel, played by Ian Hendry. After one year he was replaced by reluctant heroine Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. I hadn't seen any of her episodes until *very* recently, but I knew who she was: Honor Blackman was the actress who played Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. My Dad was a huge spy fan (had you noticed?) and he took all of his kids with him to the James Bond movies.

The Avengers started off battling crime bosses, mad scientists, psychotics, and other spies. Their adversaries began to become more and more wild as The Sixties continued: they eventually faced such exotic problems as body-switching, "aliens," time travel, being shrunk, and memory-erasing drugs. It was during this last adventure, "The Forget-Me Knot," that Mrs. Peel said good-bye to Steed and quit being an Avenger. Her position was taken by Tara King, played by Linda Thorson. Tara, aka Tara-la-boom-dee-ay, was a professional spy like Steed, yet less a fighter than Emma. Whereas Mrs. Peel would gladly use karate, judo, or jiu-jitsu to take down an opponent, Tara was more likely to hit somebody with her purse or pull a gun. Linda Thorson was a lovely actress, but the characterization just wasn't right for the show's fans. After only one year with Tara, the show was cancelled.

Meanwhile Diana Rigg went on to make such movies as The Hospital, The Assassination Bureau, and, most notably, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where her character ended up marrying James Bond! I always thought that if anybody would marry 007 it would have been Emma Peel, haha! Likewise, after "The Avengers" ended Patrick Macnee appeared as the new boss of UNCLE in the TV Move "The Return of the Man From UNCLE." He also appeared as James Bond's old friend in Roger Moore's last 007 picture, A View To A Kill.

In 1978 "The New Avengers" tried to recapture the magic, which come to think of it was probably one of the reasons CBS was showing the reruns. Patrick Macnee returned as Steed, now partnered with two other agents instead of one. However, JoAnna Lumley and Gareth Hunt were not attractive to the US audience, and the chemistry between the three leads was not as good as it had been between the two. The New Avengers, too, only lasted one year. In 1998 The Avengers movie was released. It starred Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery. It was a nice take on the Steed-Mrs. Peel adventures, but basically it was forgettable. It just goes to show that magic just can't be recreated once it's gone.

I leave you now with the famous theme song and closing credits from the Mrs. Peel era, written and performed by Mr. Laurie Johnson. This is the color version featuring Diana Rigg for the episode "Escape In Time," circa 1967.

Monday, December 12, 2011

John Mellencamp, Classic American Rocker

Every time I drive through Indiana I will har a John Mellencamp song. This isn't so strange when you know that he is actually from Indiana. His music speaks clearly to everyone, but he holds a special place in the hearts of Hoosiers (and former Hoosiers!). Songs such as "Pink Houses" and "Smalltown" sound even better when you're actually driving pink houses in some small Indiana town!

John Mellencamp started out recording under the stage name "John Cougar." He hated that name, and when he became more famous (ie powerful), he went about changing it to his real name. This is why his most well-known albums in the late 80s feature his name as John Cougar Mellencamp. In 1991 he dropped the name entirely.

Mellencamp's biggest hit is "Jack & Diane," which hit No. 1 in 1982. It's a great song about growing up in the Midwest. Jack "does his best James Dean" while Diane is "his debutante in the back-seat of Jack's car." (By the way, James Dean was also from Indiana.) It's a catchy tune and I enjoy listening to it whenever I hear it. However, as I get older the line that means the most to me is this one: "life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone."

Mellencamp is from Indiana, and I lived there for four years when I first came back from Japan. I came across his Greatest Hits collection The Best That I Could Do and listened to it often. When I hosted an exchange student, I bought him a copy of this CD and said, "This is Indiana. THIS is America."

John Mellencamp is also indirectly responsible for me moving to Columbus. In 2004 he was part of the Democratic "Rock The Vote" campaign supporting Senator Kerry over President Bush. One of the tour's stopping points was the battle state of Ohio: namely, in a club in downtown Columbus. I had always wanted to see him, and I am a life-long Democrat, so I decided to make the one-man trek from Hoosier Country to
Buckeye Country. I was SO glad that I did: the show was AWESOME! The venue wasn't an arena, but was bigger than a club. I got my money's worth *and* I got a glimpse of night-time Columbus. I liked it. When I started looking for a new job a few months later, Columbus was high on my list of possible moves.

Participating in "Rock The Vote" was not out of character for him. He was a big proponent of FARM AID with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, the rock charity concerts that helped raise money and awareness about foreclosed farms. His song "Peaceful World" (a duet with India.Arie) rails against hypocrites, racists, and political correctness. His song "To Washington" mocks President Bush for his 2001 election victory. So Mellencamp is a die-hard Liberal in a die-hard Red State, so that's another reason to like him.

My favorite Mellencamp song has always been the following, "The Authority Song." I took it to heart fromt he first time I heard it on the album, "Uh-huh." Whenever I get down I play it or sing it or watch it and get re-energized. It's a great song and a fun video. I hope you agree.

JLA # 12 "War With The One-Man Justice League!" FORWARD

So here we have the second 2-parter I did after the Time Lord stories (numbers 6 & 7). In my opinion this story works better than that one did...if only because the heroes took more of an active role in this story than they did waiting around fighting dinosaurs in the earlier one. 

As discussed last issue, this story is based on JUSTICE LEAGUE of AMERICA #s 111-112 (which is why I wrote them in JUSTICE LEAGUE #s 11 & 12). However, though this story is based on that one, some of the members were not the same. The original featured The Atom, Red Tornado, and The Elongated Man instead of Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, and Hawkwoman.  So in the original, Green Lantern, the Atom, and Red Tornado teamed up; in my version I replaced the latter two guys with Wonder Woman and Hawkwoman. I don't think my changes did anything to lessen the quality of the plot, but if you have read the originals I would like to hear your opinion on how I "adapted" them.

As mentioned elsewhere, JLA #112 was the first comic book I ever remember reading. So obviously it made a pretty good impression on me, haha! I knew I was going to do an adaptation of this story about a year before I did it, which is another reason I down-played Batman in my other stories. If you have been waiting for Batman to pull his weight among his team-mates, then wait no more. As you'll see, Batman plays a *pretty* big part in this story. 

This story features one of my favorite villains, Amazo. His back-story is pretty complex, but suffice it to say that he is an android with all of the powers of the Justice League. Yeah, he's a bad-ass. I don't really like the way I drew him in this story,  unfortunately, haha.

Well, I'm wasting your time here. Hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed doing it.

JLA #12 "War With The One-Man Justice League!"

I thought this was one of my better "action" covers.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Russell's Ken-Bun-Ki May 30, 1996 Listening Power (1)

Note: This article is written with native Japanese trying to learn English in mind, but it is equally true for any native speaker trying to learn any  foreign language.

I think the most important thing (for Japanese people) when speaking in English is the ability to "catch" what is being said. To study English you can read a book, using only your visual abilities. However, when speaking you have to be able to use your ears to hear and understand what your partner is saying or you cannot respond.
That's why it's better to introduce foreign languages to very young children. Sometimes children (at kindergartens) ask me questions like, "What are banannas called in English?" Very young children do not know the difference between "Japanese" and "English" (or any foreign language). when anyone speaks to them, no matter what language it is, the children only hears "language." A step to help improve their English is to show young children cartoons that are in English. Young children watching a video in Japanese don't understand the story the first time they see it. They are attracted to the colors and actions. After several repeat viewings, the level of comprehension increases. This is how children learn their mother tongues! In the same way, if they watched an English video instead of a Japanese video they will become familiar with a foreign language without even realizing it: orally, via listening.
Mothers and fathers, the next time you are borrowing videos with/for your children, please borrow a cartoon in English that you know the story to. For example, Cinderella, Snow White, or Aladdin. Your children will absorb the English dialogue. If you watch the cartoon with them, you can explain any confusing story points. Your English ability will also improve with an increase in self-confidence. Children with the ability to "catch" what is said to them in English can then re-create the pronunciations and rhythms of the language. What I find the most sad is when elementary school kids tell me, "It's English, so I don't understand it!" It's just so sad to see kids at that age who have already given up.

(Click on the article to Sumo-Size it)

I wrote this article in 1996 after I had been an English teacher to Japanese kids for nearly ten years. I had seen, first hand, how kids who didn't have any particular interest in English had a good "ear" for it if they had been exposed to it at a very young age. Fifteen years later, my own daughter was able to master English AND Japanese because she was exposed to both languages from an early age. I would tell adults who were interested: think about how YOU learned a language. All children learn AURALLY.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Magnificent Seven Samurai

If you're a fan of Pop Culture you probably have already heard of The Magnificent Seven. The 1960 Western film was directed by John Sturges. It's one of those movies that people who don't even watch movies know (like The Passion of the Christ or Brokeback Mountain, to use two modern references). The music by Elmer Bernstein is known as one of the best movie themes of all time. But you know what? This classic Western is actually sort of a remake of The Seven Samurai, a Japanese "western" directed by the great Akira Kurosawa in 1954.

Kurosawa was well-known in Hollywood for having directed Rashomon, which won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (And if you haven't seen Rashomon, go out and rent it right now! It's a precursor to all sorts of other point-of-view twisting films and deserves to be seen. You won't regret it.) Likewise, his The Seven Samurai (TSS) was a hit in Hollywood, too. It tells the story of a poor village that knows it is marked for attack by a roaming group of bandits. As soon as their crops are harvested, the bandits will come back and take what they want. Instead of giving in to these bandits, however, the village decide to "hire" samurai to protect them. The Magnificent Seven (TMS) tells the same story, transposing it to a Mexican village whose members ask gunfighters to protect it.

Both films are classics in their respective genres, so I'm not going to spend any time analyzing them....separately. I would like to analyze them side-by-side, as two sides of the same coin.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen one or either of these films, I strongly suggest that you do so and then come back and read this article. I will try not to spoil too many plot points, but a few will definitely be revealed to you. And besides, these are *both* great movies definitely worth your time. And it will be more fun if you actually understand what I'm talking about, right?

The Protagonists

art by Toshihiko Ueeda
Gunslingers and Samurai are similar archetypes, which is why the original Japanese movie could be re-made as a Western in the first place. In fact, when Yul Brynner as the leader of TMS comments about not having any wife, or children, or real home, he could have also been talking about "ronin," the masterless samurai who populate TSS. Toshiro Mifune is the big name for the western audience, but fans of Japanese cinema in general and Kurosawa's films in particular will recognize quite a few familiar faces, especially Takeshi Shimura as leader Kambei. (*note: Shimura is fantastic as the city bureacrat dying of cancer in Ikiru/To Live (1952). If you ever have a chance to see this film, please do. Only a handful of movies have the power to reduce me to tears; this is one of them.) Along with stoic Kambei, the other seven samurai are his old friend, a new friend, an apprentice, a jokester, a man with no ego, and a redneck samurai-wannabe. Although their names are difficult to remember and not used very often, each of the seven are clearly defined actors and characters, and if you've seen the movie you know exactly who I'm talking about, even if you don't know their names. The caricature I found in an old Japanese TV guide captures their essenses wonderfully.

On the other hand, in TMS you have Brynner and Steve McQueen as "the leads," co-equals or nearly. In the Western you also have his old friend, a man with no ego, and a redneck gunslinger-wannabe. The other two? Robert Vaughn (in his pre-Man From UNCLE days) is a spit-and-polish gun-for-hire. In researching this article I read his character described as a coward, a loser, a bounty hunter who has lost his confidence, and a fighter afraid of death. When I watched the film again recently I was not sure how to take him. Was he any or all of the above? For me, this was a failure. Likewise, Charles Bronson is at first shown comically (he is introduced to us chopping wood, the same way the jokester samurai Heihachi is introduced), but then he befriends several children in the village ala Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo. So his characterization isn't fully realized, either, in my opinion. Chico in TMS is a mixture of Mifune's brass and blustering country bumpkin and Katshuhiro, the apprentice portrayed by Isao Kimura. While Horst Buchholz as Chico does an adequate job in his film, when you actually compare the two, TSS with two young characters works better for me. There is one scene in particular where the two youngest men are shown juxtaposed, with Katsushiro praising another of the samurai to Kikuchiyo. This relationship is totally lost in TMS, and that's a shame.

One last word about the "wannabe" heroes. It seems that both versions are terribly annoying, don't you think so!? Is this because I find both roles too big and splashy, or is it because the actors don't do the roles justice? I know Mifune played "crazy" well (reference Throne of Blood, if nothing else) and I have no idea who Buchholz is. Still, I kept finding myself wondering what some of the other characters were doing when we kept the camera on Kikuchiyo or Chico. I think a little less on both of them and a little more on some of "and others" would have been a better thing, ya know?
Winner: Swords

The Antagonists
Something TMS definitely got right was the idea of making a character out of the bandit leader. In TSS he doesn't even have a name, let alone any personality. In TSS the bandits are simply a force, like the rain or the wind shown so often. (This is an interesting thesis, comparing the bandits to a force of nature, but I'm not going to get into that here!) I prefer my villains as flesh and blood. Eli Wallach does a great job balancing his evil with a touch of humanity. You want to hate Calvera, but yet, somehow you can't.
Winner: Guns

The Villagers
When I watched the "making of" documentary of TMS the staff talked about how the Mexican censors insisted on certain things, such as the villagers could never be shown dirty. (!) My first thought when I watched TMS was, "Why was it set in Mexico?!" After watching the "making of" documentary, I would really like to know, haha! Surely there could have been a small town somewhere in Arizona or Colorado that would have worked just as well if not better? Maybe an Indian village, if Sturges was intent on having some racial underpining. Moving the story to Mexico raises all sorts of US-Mexican issues while muddying the message of heroism. In TSS, on the other hand, since all the characters are one nationality, it can comment on class (farmers-samurai) and sex more clearly.
As characters go, only a handful of villagers are given any personalities at all, so it's basically a draw on that score. On the other hand, we do learn a little bit more about one or two of the Japanese villagers, so I'll give this to TSS.
Winner: Swords 

The Plot
The biggest difference between these movies is how the good guys fight the bad guys. It's simple, really: the samurai are armed with swords and the cowboys are armed with guns. In fact, the samurai are wary because the bandits have a rifle or two that they do not have. Both movies spend their first halves establishing the situation and the stars. The second half of TSS is comprised of several individual skirmishes, as the bandits on horses try to attack the samurai on foot. TSS culminates in a last-ditch effort by the bandits to take over the village. TMS, on the other hand, has only two gun battles, both of which occur because each sides make fatal tactical errors. When Calvera allows the Seven to leave the village unharmed, I couldn't believe he could be so stupid. Then when he actually gives them their guns back after they are escorted (!) out, I was shaking my head in disbelief. Maybe I'm jaded; it's possible. As a plot device, however, it seemed false. I think it would have worked better if TMS had stuck closer to TSS plot: the bandits don't give up and continue to try to get into the village. The fights are longer and perhaps more suspenseful, and then Calvera makes one last desperate attempt to raid the village. It just seems like TSS plot was better thought out.
Winner: Swords

Things That Bothered Me
1. The leader in both films says at the end, "We didn't win. We never win. The farmers won." This seems odd to me. They were out to help the village, right? The bandits were defeated, right? So what's the problem? Samurai and gunslingers aren't in it for the glory, so I don't understand the point. What am I missing?
2. The young guy and the local girl relationship is totally different in the two films. In TSS it should be obvious that Katsuhiro and Shino have sex. In TMS, it's not as clearly implied that Chico and his girl, do, too. Is that one of the reasons he is allowed to live and stay with her at the end? Because TMS combined the two youngest protagonists into one character, the powerful death scene of Kikuchiyo is lost. And instead of having a bittersweet ending with Chico and his girl similar to Katsuhiro not staying with Shino, there's a "forced" happy ending with Chico settling down to farm again. Yet, think about it. This is the character that wanted most desperately to be a gunslinger. Especially after Brynner's speech about having no ties anywhere, do you really think Chico is going to be happy as a farmer? It just doesn't seem  true to his character. And in TSS, would it have been impossible for Katshuhiro to stay in the village? There is the whole scene with her father screaming about samurai and farmers not being able to mix. This is more a judgment on (Japanese) society than the "happy ending" allowed us in TMS. Imagine if the young gunslinger hadn't been Mexican...would a bi-racial couple have been allowed to live in a 1960 Hollywood movie?

In Conclusion
Three Swords beat One Guns, meaning that to me, The Seven Samurai is a better film. Acting heroically is its own reward; this message transcends cultures. However, in the Japanese version you feel a sense of stoicism in the survivors that I didn't feel in the Western. I believe that losing the second younger character loses the point of view of the hero-worshipping audience; when the hero with no ego whatsoever is killed in both films, there is true sadness in TSS because we have been shown just how much the young apprentice idolized him. His tears go a long way to show how much these characters "matter." You just don't have that emotional depth in TMS, and that's partly because Kurosawa spends more time on his characters, and partly because TMS lacks the younger point of view.
I just read that there is going to be a remake of this movie/these movies, with a possible release by 2014. The story I read says that it will be redone with SEAL-type militiamen protecting a jungle village. It will be interesting to see if these genres can be updated to include military protagonists, and which of these films the newest version will most closely resemble.

This is the first article in a series I am going to call The Magnificent Seven. I am going to look at "My Seven Favorite (......)" and write about them, hopefully on a semi-regular basis.  I hope you enjoy them! :-)