Category Archives: Reading

The Witch Mountain Saga

Alexander Key’s ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN has been remarkably successful on screen. A 1975 and ’78 Disney film and sequel, a TV movie remake, a TV pilot Beyond Witch Mountain, and 2009’s RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN. While the book is good, I suspect it’s the success of Disney’s 1975 version (above average for their live-action films of that era) that explains the Mouse constantly revisiting the property.

The protagonists of the 1968 novel are Tony and Tia, pre-teen orphan survivors of a shipwreck they barely remember. Now that their foster mother has died, they’re warehoused in a miserable orphanage. It doesn’t help that they have freaky powers such as TK and telepathy and that Tia talks in a voice only Tony can hear. Things get worse when a mysterious figure named Deranian claims custody of the kids as a relative. They know he’s lying but who will believe them?

Fortunately there’s Father O’Hara, a priest who believes them and deduces Deranian’s agenda: He’s a Soviet agent who intends to get control of the kids and exploit their powers. O’Hara helps them escape but Deranian is very competent, the law’s on his side and he has all his spy network’s resources to draw upon. The kids follow clues to what they think might be a relative or a friend of the family out in the country near Witch Mountain, but it’s not an easy trip, particularly when the locals get a glimpse of their powers and declare a witch hunt.

It all ends well, of course. The kids learn the shipwreck was a spaceship, part of an evacuation fleeing their doomed planet, reunite with the other castaways at Witch Mountain and convince Deranian they’ve left Earth by flying saucer. Even with their powers and O’Hara’s help, it ain’t easy.

The 1975 Disney movie is considerably lighter in tone. The orphanage seems to be a fun place and the bad guys — parapsychologist Deranian (Donald Pleasance) and his millionaire boss (Ray Milland) — are the kind of bumbling foes kids in Disney movies were always running rings around in those days (like I said Saturday, this was not a high point for Disney creatively). And Eddie Albert as O’Hara (not a priest) is another stereotype, a crusty old dude who only needs custody of the two adorable moppets to thaw into a lovable guy. Still, it’s way better than The Cat From Outer Space. “Do you know what the word ‘castaway’ means?”

Three years later the kids RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN to get a taste of life in the big city (which hardly seems like anything an alien colony would consider important). When Tony displays his powers he attracts the attention of wealthy Bette Midler and her evil scientist Christopher Lee, who quickly enslaves Tony with his mind-control tech. Can Tia and a gang of cuddly but street-smart kids rescue her brother? Although the cute factor gets dialed up, the villains are more memorable (Lee’s plan is to have Tony push a nuclear plant to go Three Mile Island unless the government pays up big) and there’s a spectacular TK battle between Tony and Tia at the climax.  You’re the worst kind of gambler — you use other people’s money and want to keep all the winnings for yourself.”

RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (2009) is a surprisingly good reboot that raises the stakes — rather than refugees seeking new life, Earth is facing an invasion from the doomed world unless two alien teens can make it back home with evidence that Earth-based research can save their planet from eco-collapse. Against them is an assassin the warhawk faction has sent to ensure the war goes ahead and DHS agent Ciaran Hinds, who wants the teens as science experiments so he can duplicate their powers (it shows the “bogeyman” principle I mentioned in Screen Enemies of the American Way, that these villains are interchangeable  — a Commie spy, a millionaire, an American operative can all serve as the bad guy here).

But not to worry, when the kids hire a cab driver it turns out to be Dwayne Johnson, ex-con and former underworld wheel man, trying to stay straight. Not that he believes these weird kids or that he’s going to stick his neck out for them, hell no … Carla Guggino plays an expert in extraterrestrial life and Garry Marshall is a UFO paranoia crackpot.

Key’s premise reminds me (and I’m not alone) of Zenna Henderson’s stories of “The People,” aliens who fled their dying world, crashed on Earth and are slowly gathering in their lost ones to the valley where they settled. THE PEOPLE (1972) is a low-key adaptation of the short stories, with Kim Darby as a teacher trying to figure out why this community seems so weird and William Shatner as a local doctor wondering the same thing. A quiet, gentle film — too gentle for some people, but I like it. “Can’t you see that the time of fear is ending? That’s why you were sent.”

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Vienna, the Shadow and maybe some magic: books read

FIN-DE-SIECLE VIENNA: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske looks at the Austrian capital in the late 19th century as the liberal consensus that had dominated the previous few decades began to collapse, leaving politicians, thinkers and creators looking for alternatives. Schorske writes this as a series of essays on key thinkers: architects, Freud, Zionist Theodor Herzl, Gustav Klimt, novelists and anti-Semites, all trying to figure out what society should be doing and what their place in it was. The individual profiles are interesting, but they don’t give me a sense of the big picture.

After Walter Gibson revived the Shadow in the 1960s paperback The Return of the Shadow Dennis Lynds took over for a brief series run. In THE SHADOW STRIKES, the Master of Darkness investigates the death of a Yugoslavian immigrant working with a Communist refugee group — was it an accident? And if not, who stood to gain by it? This lacks Gibson’s spark and shows an Ian Fleming influence — international intrigue, Commies and a fairly vivid torture scene; it’s much talkier than the original pulps with the Shadow talking his theories out with others rather than plotting alone in his lair.

Edward Eager’s  THE WELL-WISHERS reunites the protagonists of Magic or Not for another round of good deeds that might or might not be helped by the wishing well, whether it’s saving a local apple orchard, battling bullies or helping a black family move into the neighborhood despite protests (it says a lot about the times that Eager avoids spelling out They’re Black, but I’d imagine even kids would figure it out). Atypical for Eager, this takes place during the school year rather than the summer (which even the kids comment on); I’m not sure why but it works much better for me than the previous book did.

A reference in the Eager book got me to look at E. Nesbit’s THE WONDERFUL GARDEN wherein three siblings spending the summer with an eccentric uncle stumble across a book of flower-based magic. When a young boy runs away from his Dickensian guardian and hides out with them, the magic seems to help — but is it just coincidence? While there are some touches that I like, this is a dull Nesbit that lacks the charm of some of her other non-fantasy stories such as The Story of the Treasure Seekers.

THE VISION AND THE SCARLET WITCH collects the miniseries by Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi, which I read to tie in with Wanda/Vision, as well as the Steve Englehart/Don Heck special where the couple tied the knot. The story of Wanda and Vizh settling into the suburbs for a life as ordinary people — needless to say, it’s not as ordinary as they hope — fluctuates wildly in quality. The first issue pits the couple against a stock Evil Druid type (druids rarely come off well in comics). The second issue, dealing with Wanda’s supposed father (it’s complicated), the 1940s Whizzer, is  lot more interesting; the third, dealing with the Vision’s two sort-of siblings Wonder Man and the Grim Reaper much less so. The fourth, in which Wanda learns the truth of her relationship with Magneto (before Marvel retconned that out), is back to good. The Englehart story is great, but as the climax of a year-long story arc, I can’t imagine it makes much sense standing alone (I missed the preceding issue back in the day and I was confused by some details).

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True to the character

I’ve seen countless stories where characters get reinvented, sometimes radically. Holmes in the far future. Holmes on Mars. Black Holmes. Gay Holmes. Female Holmes. Countless versions of the Arthurian legends that go where Thomas Malory would never have thought of going (e.g., Merlin or Tears to Tiara). I’ve written Conan wooing Elizabeth Bennett in a Pride and Prejudice riff. But still, as I’ve mentioned before, sometimes a reboot or reinterpretation stretches a character beyond what works.

Three Y/A and intermediate graphic novels I read recently reminded me of this. They all try for new approaches, tailored for the age range, to various DC characters; two of them worked for me, one didn’t (I will make the obvious point that I am not the target audience for any of them) and I thought it might be interesting to right about why.

The one that didn’t was TEEN TITANS: Raven by Kami Garcia and Gabriel Picolo (cover by Picolo). Raven Roth is in the middle of a heated, ominous discussion with her mom during a cross country trip when there’s an accident that kills her mother and leaves Raven with amnesia. While a friend of her mom’s takes Raven in, the death and the loss of her memory leaves her feeling pretty miserable. Plus, she’s in high school, which is more misery. Plus these weird things happen around her as if she was able to curse the school bullies or something — that can’t be true, right? By the end of the story, Raven’s learned she’s a half-demon, child of Trigon, escaped his grasp for now and set off on new adventures (this is the first graphic novel in a new Teen Titans line).

Don’t get me wrong, the story is perfectly competent, it’s just that it’s perfectly generic. I don’t expect a project like this to hark back to the 1980s Wolfman/Perez version of Raven, but if they’d made her Zatanna or Jean Grey the story would hardly have had to change. There’s nothing that makes me think “Raven,” not even the tart-tongued, short-tempered Raven of Teen Titans Go (which is not faithful to Wolfman/Perez either, but it works).

By contrast, DIANA, PRINCESS OF THE AMAZONS by Shannon and Dean Hale and Victoria Ying feels very Wonder Woman. Diana’s a pre-teen in this story, the only child on all Themiscyra. When she was the first baby, everyone made a great fuss about her, but now she’s older, everyone including her mom takes her for granted, and she has nobody her own age to play with.

Diana’s solution? Make a girl of clay and try to wish it to life the way Hippolyta did Diana. To her surprise it works, and she now has a new friend, Mona. Only Mona’s ideas about having fun are decidedly mischievous — and wouldn’t it be a wonderful bit of mischief if they opened that Doom’s Doorway the Amazons are supposed to keep closed forever? This is a different take on the Amazing Amazon’s childhood than I’ve seen before, but it fits Wonder Woman perfectly.

Last of the three is ZATANNA & THE HOUSE OF SECRETS by Matthew Cody and Yoshi Yoshitani (cover by Yoshitani). Here Zatanna is thirteen, living with her stage magician father ever since Mom died. She’s a bit of an outcast at school, not quite sure where she fits in, but it doesn’t dampen her ebullient spirit too much. But then her dad disappears, after warning her to take good care of his pet rabbit, Pocus. Zatanna finds evidence her Mom is really alive. And then a creepy kid named Klarion and his mom steal a key chain from around Pocus’ neck and proclaim themselves the new owners of Zatara’s House of Secrets, the supernatural template on which all houses are built. Can Zatanna regain control? What’s going on with Mom? Just how many doors are there in the house, anyway?

This is as radical a reworking of Zatanna’s story as Raven but it feels like a recognizable version of the character I know. It’s also not at all generic — it takes the premise and does fun stuff with it (weird house with infinite doors is a great premise).

None of that translates into any insights I can use in my own writing, but analyzing other people’s writing is fun even so.

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Lois Lane and fifties films: books read

Tim Hanley’s INVESTIGATING LOIS LANE: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter shows that Lois Lane is a paradox. On the one hand, she’s one of the world’s best known female characters, a talented, fearless, award-winning reporter. On the other, she’s “Superman’s Girlfriend,” later wife, so even when she has her own book she’s seen as more an attachment to the Superman legend than a hero in her own right. And that’s Lois at her best; at her worst, Superman and his writers (overwhelmingly male) have written her as the butt of the joke who has to be humiliated or taught a lesson, even in her own book. The Curt Swan image here, for example, involves Superman tricking Lois into thinking she has kryptonite vision to teach her a lesson (5,000 in a series).

Since the Silver Age, Lois has gone up and down, embracing feminism, reverting to Superman’s girlfriend, dating Clark for a couple of years, eventually marrying him. But Hanley concludes that hasn’t helped: before the New 52 reboot ended the marriage (it’s been retconned back since) Lois spent most of her time at home with Clark instead of the at the office, and her apparent death was used as a way to torture Superman a half-dozen times. Hanley does a good job covering all this and Lois’s appearances in other media. Despite a couple of minor errors (Lois started her nursing career well before her brief “women’s lib” period), it’s well worth reading.

I reread SEEING IS BELIEVING: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties by Peter Biskind to see if it provided some insight into 1950s SF films for Alien Visitors. The book is in general an interesting analysis of political themes in 1950s cinema, which Biskind classes as centrist (the system is good. People should trust the army/government/medical establishment and work within the system), radical (the system is a conformist monster. Individualism and rebels are the ones to trust), left-wing (trust the white-collar technocrats or lone geniuses, depending whether you’re centrist or not) or right-wing (trust the GI over the officer, the local cop over DC officials). Thus Biskind sees the 1950s films about the burden of command (as described in The War Film) such as Twelve O’Clock High as liberal centrist: the enlisted men must trust their officers and choose duty to the platoon/battalion/group over saving their buddy.

As to insight, it’s a mixed bag. Biskind’s analysis of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is that it has an anti-communist message but that’s just a cover for the film to attack American conformism (just as the giant ants of Them are a communist allegory, but just a cover for attacking American radicals). While the film can be interpreted as anti-communist, it wasn’t written that way, nor initially seen that way, and Biskind’s idea of a double-attack is just plain silly. However I do think he has a good point that any criticism of conformity doesn’t translate into supporting non-conformists (that had to wait for the 1978 remake). He does have some interesting points about the role of scientists in the movies and whether trusting the aliens makes them visionaries or fools. So worth the reread.

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Bad, bad, bad, bad girls (on paperback covers)

Robert McGinnis gives us a bad girl … whose left hand appears to have dematerialized.

Another bad girl, because good girls don’t show up naked on the cover. I’m not sure why women painting their toenails was considered sexy, but I’ve seen that in a lot of images.

Barye Phillips gives women a warning! against getting involved with those crazy beatniks.An uncredited cover dealing with “liquor and lust!”This uncredited cover may look like the lead’s got a bizarre fetish but his passion is just his love for the sea over his landbound wife.

And here’s another McGinnis cover, with the kind of bad girl that paperback PIs always ran into the 1950s.

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From schoolboys to soldiers: books

Anthony Buckeridge’s second Jennings book, JENNINGS FOLLOWS A CLUE has Mr. Carter introduce Jennings to Sherlock Holmes, who blows the boy away much as it did me at that age. So naturally, he and Darbishire set out to become the Holmes and Watson of Linbury Court Preparatory School (I had no illusions I could pull that off, just in case you were wondering). What follow are the inevitable misunderstandings and catastrophes as the boys spot crimes and thieves that don’t exist, before the equally inevitable climax in which they redeem themselves by busting a real crook. Not up to Jennings Goes to School, probably because kid detectives is such well-worn ground; fun, though, with more kid slang (I so want the opportunity to call someone a “prehistoric ruin!”) and the debut of General Melville, an Old Linburian who plays a semi-regular role in the series from then on.

TIME AND CHANCE by Alan Brennert has two alt.versions of the same man — one drowning in rage that he never left his small town, one a successful actor who misses the people he left behind — somehow meet and exchange lives only to discover, ultimately, that there’s no life like their own. I watched so many films like this for Now and Then We Time Travel Twice Upon a Time, Quest for Love and Family Man, for instance (all covered in this post) — that this was too familiar for me to really like, even though I read it all the way through. If you haven’t read anything like this before, you might like it better.

THE WAR FILM by Norman Kagan is a small but interesting book that tackles the subject both chronologically — Great War films, WW II, Korea (Kagan sees Korean War films as reflecting America’s awareness it was now the world’s policeman) and ‘nam (the book dates from the early 1970s) and thematically (anti-war films, films about understanding our allies or enemies, war comedies). A good overview, though not deep, with some interesting observations such as the emphasis in 1950s WW II films on the burden of command.

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Some days you get the bear, some days the totem pole gets you

I’m running behind, this will have to do for today’s post. Art by Dick Dillin.#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Love and Fear: Comics Covers

First love, courtesy of John Romita — but seriously Janice, you can do better than this jerk.Then some terror, courtesy of Mort Drucker.And more terror, this time from Steve Ditko.

Cosmic terror as Gene Colan catches Dr. Strange fighting to save reality.And a somber finish, art by Mike Sekowsky.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Math, mediums, scurvy and kids: books read.

I wish I’d read HIDDEN FIGURES: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly before the movie made the basic concept — that a number of black women “computers” (originally a term for human number-crunchers) helped plot the necessary math for the space program — familiar to me. That said the details are quite interesting, going back to WW II and the military’s need for computers to help figure out the complexities of air flow and pressure in aeronautical engineering. Black women with math skills had no future outside teaching, so they seized the opportunity as a better-paid, more challenging alternative. When Sputnik made the space race a priority, many of the women jumped to NASA (I’d never realized how much precise calculation is involved in sending a capsule into orbit and landing it in the right spot in the ocean), culminating in math whiz Katherine Johnson helping review the computer calculations for Apollo 11. This an interesting slice of history, including the always amusing tech details of ancient computer tech (high-speed data transmission of 1 kilobyte a second!) though it’s not exactly dramatic: the women did grapple with sexism and racism but they didn’t have the kind of turning points that make for a character arc (that is not the book’s fault, of course).

In the opening of Walter Gibson’s THE GHOST MAKERS a seance for wealthy patrons goes wrong when someone ends up stabbed; Det. Cardona suspects the killer was anything but a spirit, but which of the attendees did it? Fortunately the Shadow is on the case, which turns out to involve a network of phony mediums pooling their resources to pull off bigger scams, like having multiple suckers invest in the same crap stock. A couple of years after Gangdom’s Doom assured us the Shadow doesn’t kill and he’s still not as murderous as I envision him, frequently shooting guns out of hands rather than killing crooks. This is a solid series entry; there’s at least one more ghost-busting tale in the series, House of Ghosts.

While Scott and Amundsen taught me scurvy was an ugly disease, I had no idea until reading SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, by Stephen R. Bown how nightmarish it was. Because the loss of vitamin C affected collagen, for instance, broken bones that had previous healed would suddenly un-knit in serious scurvy cases. This had disastrous effects on the British navy in an age when shipboard conditions could weaken even strong, healthy men but the admiralty stubbornly resisted treating seamen as anything but cannon fodder; the medical profession’s antiquated view of how disease worked made it next to impossible to think coherently about the problem. Ship’s surgeon James Lind and Captain Cook saw the light but couldn’t dent official dogma, so it was left to physician Gilbert Blane, who had not only good research but good social connections, to win the fight. A good medical history.

I presume the protagonists of Edward Eager’s MAGIC OR NOT mentioning Half Magic as a favorite book of theirs is meant to signal the new story is not in that continuity. In contrast to the blatant magic of the first four books, here the wishing well they’re using to help people is so subtle they wind up wondering if it was their imagination. Probably not (as they point out that would take every adult in town being in on fooling them), but this remains a fairly ordinary children’s adventure, not up to the earlier tales.

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Some comics covers for Tuesday

First a couple of John Romita’s romance covers. Ruben Moreira shows why doing jigsaws is a dangerous pastime.Mike Sekowsky mourns the deaths of DC’s Metal Men.Dick Dillin gives us an unusual courtroom scene.And Barry Windsor Smith gives us Conan in a scene from “The God in the Bowl.”#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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