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I hope your week has been better than Stephen Strange’s

And that the Spawn of Sligguth didn’t drag you down!I got my permanent crown in Wednesday, so I feel definitely victorious over darkness. No more worrying about biting down on nuts or toffee, whoo-hoo!

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Adam Strange and commitment

Finishing DC’s Adam Strange Omnibus recently has me thinking about former Marvel editor Tom Brevoort’s post on the importance of committing to the idea. As Brevoort explains it, in the comics business you may end up working on a strip you don’t like or can’t get into. Rather than radically turning it into something you’d prefer, “what you need to be able to do is to figure out what it is about the character or the book that appeals to the people who like it–or is supposed to–and then Commit To The Idea.” How does that connect to Adam Strange? I’ll get to that.

For those who don’t know Adam, or only know him from Krypton, he debuted in Showcase #17. Showcase was DC’s tryout magazine, testing new features for several issues to see if they had the strength to go to series. Adam didn’t make it to his own book but he did land the cover spot in the SF anthology Mystery In Space, starting in 1959 and continuing until 1965.

In the first story, by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky, we meet Adam as an archeologist attacked by natives while excavating a South American site. As he runs he’s hit by a beam and materializes (as he and we learn) on Rann, a planet around Alpha Centauri, slightly over four light years away. Sardath, the chief scientist of the city state of Ranagar, has been experimenting with a communication ray called a Zeta Beam, but space radiation in the four years it took to reach Earth has mutated it into a teleport ray instead. Adam stays on Rann long enough to fall in love with Sardath’s daughter Alanna and to save Rann from the Eternals, immortals seeking a McGuffin that will maintain their ageless state. The Zeta Beam energy wears off, returning Adam to Earth but Sardath’s told him where the next one will strike, so  soon he’s on his way back to Alanna.

No question the series was formulaic. Typically we’d open with Adam trying to catch the Zeta Beam despite obstacles. Once he arrives on Rann, something menaces the planet (in an early example of lampshading, he and Alanna joke about this throughout the series) and Adam figures out a way to stop it. Rather than whipping up a super-weapon, typically the solution involved Adam out-thinking his foe; quick wits were his super-power. In the classic “Planet That Came to a Standstill,” for example, the alien villain has figured out how to give himself super-powers via Rann’s triple sun, modeled on the way Superman gains powers from our sun. Adam correctly deduces that Kanjar Ro will be vulnerable to radioactive metal from his homeworld just as Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite. He defeats Kanjar Ro where the Justice League failed.

What made it work, at least for fans like me, is that the stories were genuinely fun and often clever. The long-distance relationship with Alanna added some romantic tension and they clearly had a very affectionate physical relationship (of all the unmarried heroes of the Silver Age, Adam’s the one most likely to be bedding his girlfriend). Carmine Infantino, taking over the art from Sekowsky, provides really great visuals, especially when paired with Murphy Anderson.The last dozen or so issues, with an entirely different creative team, are a disappointment (the editor, Julius Schwartz, had been transferred over to Batman, and taken Fox and Infantino with him). But they did stay true to the idea. Alan Moore, when he wroe Adam Strange in Swamp Thing #87 and 88 did not.

Adam Strange’s adventures were upbeat, optimistic and full of a sense of wonder. When a star-traveling Swamp Thing arrives on Ranagar, the tone is bleak, cramped and miserable (this was setting up for Adam’s new direction, in a limited series that came out a few years later). Rann is a dying world with radiation from past wars sterilizing much of the population. Adam was brought deliberately, not by accident, so that he could be used to impregnate Alanna. The Rannians look at him with contempt as an Earth primitive rather than a hero. IIRC, there was a hint that the various menaces were just distractions to keep Adam occupied, but I can’t swear to that.

For me, this sucked; the subsequent series by Richard Brunning sucked worse. Rather than commit to the idea they’d decided to deconstruct the series and make it grim, gritty and Serious.

Of course if you’re trying to reboot a series or character that got cancelled years earlier, I expect the new writers to try something new. But there’s a difference between adapting and improving while committing to the core concept and disregarding what made the original work. The James Patterson The Shadow for example, ignores everything that made Walter Gibson’s Shadow click. DC’s 1990s Hawk and the Dove series, by contrast, radically changed things up but they kept it true enough to the Silver Age version.

I could probably think of counter examples, but overall I think Brevoort has a good point.

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And you thought the worst part of the alien invasions was anal probes!

For me the worst part was sitting through these crappy films!

THE DARKEST HOURS (2011) s a routine thriller in which a quartet of young Americans in Moscow has to band together to survive when invisible aliens launch a war of the worlds. Tedious and uninteresting. “Is it just me or does Cyrillic look a lot like Klingon?”

SAVE YOURSELVES (2020) is an unsatisfying SF comedy in which a couple take a weekend in the woods to work on their relationship without much success (“You’re just substituting that notebook for your computer.”). Then they discover that while their phones were off, aliens resembling large tribbles conquered the world (“Look at all these text messages.”). The relationship stuff is incredibly tedious and the ending makes no sense at all. “She said the rats were taking over the city — and something about ethanol.”

SKYLINES (2020) follows up the ending of Beyond Skyline by revealing the human/ET hybrid leading our counter-attack made a bad call that  got hundreds of humans killed. Now, though, she’s once again heading into space to find the source of a deadly threat — but is the cause what she thinks? Too stock to work. “It was hard to stay in touch when you’re working for the people who are hunting me.”

THE RIM OF THE WORLD (2019) is considerably more watchable: four kids at a summer camp discover an alien attack has wiped out the adults or sent them running, they have a McGuffin that can turn the tide on their hands and a malevolent alien hunter is on their trail (having it come down to Earth on a crashed shuttle felt like a throwback to the Quatermass days). Unlike Aliens in the Attic this takes the realistic assumption that the best the kids can hope to do is run and stay alive; not A-list, but I’ve sat through worse. “I prefer the dog theory.”

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES (2011) opens with various members of a Marine platoon dealing with their personal issues — one guy’s impending marriage, staff sergeant Aaron Eckhart’s impending retirement — when aliens attack cities around the world with an army of cyborg ET warriors (the mechanized look is one I keep seeing in films but I can’t quite describe it) backed up by flying drones. When the Marines call Eckhart back to duty, can he lead them to victory?

This is very much a war movie with multiple tropes from that genre — inspiring speeches; dropping your guard in a peaceful moment only to pay a price; disparate individuals forming into a single battle unit (the big obstacle to unity is Eckhart’s rep for getting his people killed); and fighting against the odds as heroically as the Battered Bastards of Bascoigne. It’s unusual to have the military this effective against an invader; I find myself debating whether this is genuinely grimmer than ET invasions used to be or if it’s just that we get close enough to the platoons to feel it when Maries bite the dust. “In my experience, lieutenant, ‘heavy shit’ is highly overrated.”

INDEPENDENCE DAY(1996) makes my point about the military in Battle Los Angeles — here they fight valiantly but in the end it’s up to IT Whiz Jeff Goldblum and drunken crop-duster Randy Quaid to take down the enemy fleet (Goldblum also realizes the alien attack is imminent before anyone in government does). This is very heavy on manliness, emphasizing president Bill Pullman as a former fighter pilot (“The people elected a warrior and they got a wimp.”) and on sexism — First Lady Mary McDonnell literally dies because she didn’t listen to her husband. This shows a strong Star Wars influence, particularly in the climax as the good guys rush to destroy the ship before it can pull a Death Star and blow up are last forces (both this and Battle Los Angeles show massive ships in contrast to the smaller ones used by Klaatu or the War of the Worlds Martians). With Brent Spiner as a U.S. scientist, Will Smith as a cigar-chomping pilot, Vivica Fox as his stripper girlfriend, Margaret Colin as Goldblum’s ex and Robert Loggia and Judd Hirsch in supporting roles. “I really don’t think they flew 90 billion light years just to start a fight.”

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The Catholic hierarchy parties like it’s 1955 (and other links)

As you’ve probably heard, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has drafted a statement saying Biden should be denied communion for saying that regardless of his personal beliefs, abortion should stay legal. I find this weirdly ironic. Sixty years ago this was precisely the kind of thing conservatives muttered about JFK, that he would do the bidding of his church. Now the pissed-off old conservatives, many of whom participated in covering up the church’s history of child abuse, are asserting JFK’s opponents were right.

As Fred Clark says, it’s also “clueless arrogance” on their part: they still think their ecclesiastical authority gives them moral authority that the rest of America will respect. “This is what happens when you’re so sure you’re someone who can claim the moral high ground that you never notice you’re up to your ears in moral quicksand.” I see much the same state of mind in the Republican religious right, a conviction that they really are holier than thou so you should listen with respect if they tell you you’re a perverted sinner or an enemy of god. How dare you say their views on women or gays are immoral or point out all the Protestant predators. Or that Jim Bakker owes $156,000 to people he bilked with a fake miracle cure promoted on his show.

Clark also responds to Lauren Boebert’s assertion that Israel and the U.S. were created for the glory of God; apparently nobody else was. As The Friendly Atheist points out, if a Jew or Muslim had given their God credit for creating the U.S., we’d be hearing outrage on the right. But a lot of people love the idea the U.S. is more special than all the other nations (you may remember they freaked out when Obama said all nations are exceptional) — they don’t want us to do anything special, they just want the cheap grace of feeling superior to the rest of the world.

Peter Laarman says this is one reason religious conservatives hate talk of America’s history of racism: saying America has done bad things clashes with their view we’re God’s chosen country. They’d rather not admit that the Constitution sanctioned slavery. And just as they can’t be argued out of conspiracy thinking, they can’t be argued out of it until they choose to let go. That’s a problem.

While I disagree with the Southern Baptist Conference’s Russell Moore, he seems genuinely committed to tackling the misogyny and racism that surge within the SBC. As you’ll see at the link, a lot of people in the SBC would rather ignore that stuff than actually act in a godly manner (or decent manner, depending on your worldview). While the new SBC leader is very conservative, he’s liberal compared to the opponents who muttered about the SBC being too woke and (what else) Critical Race Theory! But one conservative activist is now fulminating about Who Counted The Votes.

And now some random links:

The word “justice” appears quite a lot in the Greek New Testament, but it’s translated into “righteousness” in most English versions. That’s unfortunate because justice implies change to the community and society; righteousness is about personal morality.

Several religious leaders talk to Vox about their faith’s view on creating a just, fairer world.

Right-wing bullshit preacher E.W. Jackson claims hate crime laws are just to protect gays who hit on straights. Which ties in with one of the standard defenses in gay hate crimes, that the homophobe freaked out because someone hit on him. But hey, I’m sure a misogynist like Jackson will be fine if women start beating up guys who hit on them …. I’ll come in again.

Jew-hating hatemonger Rick Wiles refused to get the Trump Virus vaccine and came down with it. His explanation: Chinese spies infected him and soon they’ll do it to everyone!

How American Christians used to have their own form of cancel culture.

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Avast, ye steampunk swabs! The Crimson Pirate

(A special post as part of the Swashbucklerthon at Silver Screen Classics)

The moment I saw the opening of The Crimson Pirate (1952) I knew it was going to be different.

A shirtless Burt Lancaster swings on a rope from one mast of his galleon to the other. Grinning, he warns us that on a pirate ship in pirate waters, we should believe only what we see. Swinging back to the other mast, he pauses and corrects himself: “No. Believe half of what you see.”

Lancaster plays Captain Vallo, a Caribbean pirate as cunning as he is acrobatic (Lancaster was a circus acrobat before his movie career). In the opening, Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley), a Spanish emissary, spots a vessel adrift, its crew killed by scurvy. When he sends some men aboard to investigate, the not-so-dead crew clobber them, then capture Gruda’s ship.

With the Caribbean rife with rebellion against Spain, the ship’s hold is packed with muskets, shot and gunpowder for the colonial military. Vallo realizes the rebels would pay handsomely for that kind of armament, a thought that horrifies First Mate Bellows (Torin Thatcher). He protests futilely that gun-running’s not piracy, it’s … business!

The rest of the crew, however, is thrilled with thoughts of splitting the 50,000 florins Vallo says the guns are worth. They’re even more thrilled when Gruda and Vallo strike a deal. Vallo will sell guns to the Cobra Island revolutionary leader El Libre, then lure the rebels into Gruda’s hands for another 100,000 florins.

On Cobra, Vallo, accompanied by his sidekick Ojo (Nick Cravat, Lancaster’s former partner on the trapeze), hunts for El Libre, runs rings around Spanish troops — okay, technically he and Ojo jump, bounce and tumble their way around them — and meets El Libre’s daughter, Consuela (Eva Bartok). They’re mutually attracted but she’s a freedom fighter and he’s a ruthless cynic (“All my life, I’ve watched injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency — I don’t trust it.”).

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say Vallo finally does the right thing, Gruda does not crush the rebellion and Consuela/Vallo shippers will end up happy. The ending of any swashbuckler is predictable; it’s the journey there that makes it fun. Lancaster and Cravat’s delightful acrobatics. Cravat clowning silently like a second-string Harpo Marx (staying mute concealed his thick East Coast accent).  Thatcher’s Bellows, constantly reminding everyone how movie pirates are supposed to behave. Though I could have done without his grumbling when Vallo rules out assaulting Consuela (“We don’t leave a pretty woman molested aboard ship — it would give piracy a bad name.”).

On the down side, Eva Bartok isn’t strong enough as the fiery islander (she was actually Hungarian) to match Lancaster’s screen presence. Bradley’s Gruda is disappointingly bland. I’m sure a lot of colonial officials were bland functionaries but that’s no reason to make one the villain in a pirate swashbuckler. Neither one is so bad as to ruin the film though.

In some ways, the end of the film isn’t at all predictable. For one thing we have the scientist Elihu Prudence (James Hayter) who turns the climactic final battle against Gruda into a steampunk extravaganza. After intense days and nights of work he creates a balloon, duplicates the formula for nitroglycerin and comes up with some prototype wooden tanks (cannon with a movable wall around them). The Spanish are utterly terrified when Ojo drops bombs on them from the air.

Then there’s the politics. As Jeffrey Richards says in his excellent Swordsmen of the Screen, most swashbuckler movies are pro-monarchy. Sure, they overthrow a lot of tyrants, but only to set the rightful king on the throne again. Once Robin restores Richard the Lionhearted on England’s throne, it’s a given that peace and justice will reign again. Zorro doesn’t fight California’s corrupt government to claim independence but to put a just governor in charge.

The Crimson Pirate ain’t having none of that. Cobra’s people want independence, nothing less. The movie ends with the island free; with Vallo and Prudence on their side, we can be sure they’ll stay that way. That’s almost as remarkable as the steampunk.

The film is an unconventional swashbuckling romp and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good pirate film

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Plushie, being helpful

So last weekend we put a second rug in the living room so that the dogs would have less hardwood surface to run over. We don’t want them stumbling and the yoga mats we put down weren’t cutting it.

Plushie decided to help by standing on the backing mat and not leaving.

Later in the process, he jumped up on a couch we’d moved, then jumped off the back onto his ramp. Given his back and leg issues, TYG was terrified he’d hurt himself, but he was fine.

Both he and Trixie seem delighted with the new carpeted area. Particularly Trixie, as she’s more of a run-and-chase toys dog.

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So I’m doing a con of sorts on March 6

One of my fellow McFarland authors suggested recently that as we can’t safely arrange any events to sell our books, we do one online (unofficially — this is not a McFarland promotion, just a bunch of writers). We all liked the idea, so we’re doing various presentations the afternoon of March 6 via Zoom. Link is on the poster.Here’s the start of the schedule (you can find the whole thing if you go to the Virtual Voices page on FB). I’ll be speaking about political paranoia on film and TV, the same topic I covered in my third book for McFarland. I think I’ll have to condense the topic quite a bit to cover it in under 10 minutes.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Liking stuff made by horrible people

The question of how we deal with discovering art we love — music, plays, film, books — has been created by someone awful is not an easy one. I can generally separate the art from the person, but other people simply can’t. Unless it’s a gut decision — e.g. I don’t want to read Orson Scott Card’s fiction since his rants about Obama enlisting black street gangs as his secret police (I still value his  writing how-to books though) — it requires some sort of moral calculus: is anyone racist/sexist/homophobic objectionable (obviously I’m focusing on liberal issues here, though I realize conservatives face this issue too)? Is one tasteless homophobic joke a decade ago a deal breaker (I have no specific case in mind)? What if they committed sexual assault and served their prison time? Now that Baen Books has been caught out allowing lots of far-right rhetoric in their online forum, Baen’s Bar (some details here and here) is anyone who publishes with them tacitly supporting extremism?

My views haven’t changed since I posted about this a few years back: it’s a personal decision (ditto if the writing itself is problematic in some way). If A doesn’t want to read J. K. Rowling because she’s so anti-trans that’s perfectly reasonable, but I  don’t think reading her means someone’s endorsing her views. Not everyone agrees though. Right-winger Michael Medved once admitted he didn’t want to give a good review to a film because he’d heard the screenwriter donated to Democrats; his review was actually favorable, but he did see No Review as a valid option.

Conversely, Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money thinks judging art based on the creator’s personal life is bullshit: “The problem with just saying “I’m not going to listen to this” or “I’m never watching a Woody Allen or Roman Polanski film” is that it not only rapidly turns into judging art based on the personal behavior of who made it, which is an artistic black hole, but it also ignores the fact that most art is a collaborative process and you are also erasing a lot of great people in the process.” Refuse to watch Woody Allen and you miss great actors; refuse to listen to Phil Spector-produced music and you penalize Darlene Love and other talented singers.

Loomis quotes Amanda Marcotte dismissing Judging The Creator as “narcissistic self-involvement” and “self-purity as a substitute for activism” — besides, even if the director and the actors are good people, how do you know the cinematographer wasn’t an abuser, huh? So what’s the point?

I think they’re full of it. While it’s certainly true that piously refusing to listen can be a demonstration of self-purity, it can also be sincere; I have an automatic hackles-rising reaction to this kind “oh, you’re just virtue-signaling” dismissal of other people’s positions. And the argument that shunning bigots or rapists is pointless because there are other bigots and rapists you don’t know to shun is dumbass. A personal decision not to buy books written by known child molesters is not invalid because other authors you like may be molesting in secret. Sure, if Marcotte and Loomis want to separate art and artist, that’s cool — like I said, I do — but holding that out as the solution? Not so much.

It’s true that if you don’t watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer because Joss Whedon is a creepy person (Michelle Trachtenberg, who was 15 on the show, says it was policy he would never be left alone with her) you miss out on some awesome performances by the cast. And Darlene Love’s singing is indeed awesome. But guess what? If you never saw a single episode of Buffy you’d still be able to fill your life with amazing performances by amazing actors. While Spector has had a huge impact on pop, I’m guessing one could live a full musical life stuffed with talented singers even if you never heard anything he’d had his hands on (I “guess” because I don’t have the musical expertise to be certain). There’s a lot of great stuff in the world, so much we’ll never listen to/watch all of it. Using the creator’s morals as a sorting system isn’t inherently a bad solution.

Liberal evangelical Fred Clark writes that in some cases, separating creator and creation can be toxic: if we’ve taken inspiration from Buffy, did we absorb some of Whedon’s negative attitudes along with the good stuff? Clark derived much insight from books by theologian John Howard Yoder “and I don’t know what to do with that, because while I had no idea at the time I was reading and underlining and wrestling with the profound ideas expressed in that book, it turns out that John Howard Yoder was a serial rapist and a deeply twisted spiritual abuser.” He quotes from Christian author Tanya Marlow: “What does it say to survivors of abuse everywhere when the church quotes from sexual predators as authorities on human life or the things of God?”

Like I said, I have no clear answer to any of this. But you’re stuck with my thoughts anyway.

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Covers for Thanksgiving week

But not Thanksgiving themed.

One by EmshUncredited art for a great short story collection.One by Powers for Amis’ much criticized book on SF.An uncredited cover for a book that became a 1950s SF film.  A truly weird title on this uncredited cover. “Blood in their veins (so it doesn’t whistle)” — WTF dude?A mystery cover by Mort KuntslerAnd a mystery cover by Griffith Foxley that looks almost like a strange sf/fantasy cover.And I’ll wrap up with this one by George Ziel.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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The religious right is always wrong about homosexuality.

They’ve been proven wrong, time and again.

Quite possibly they’re not wrong to think the Barrett nomination to the Supreme Court will enable them to overturn the Obergefell gay marriage decision. But everything else? They’re full of it.

They used to claim they opposed homosexuality because gay people were promiscuous sluts and have you seen the disgusting things they do at gay pride parades? Now we know they’re just as disgusted by the sight of a same-sex couple in formal wear pledging eternal love to each other.

They predicted gay marriage would somehow destroy straight marriage. Gay marriage has been legal in some states since 2003, and straight marriage still exists.

They predicted their churches would be forced to perform gay marriages and that preachers who called gay sex a sin would be jailed. Hasn’t happened in the past 17 years.

Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Conference has complained that when the right-wing loses it’s because the moral side of the debate has been ignored. He’s wrong: gay rights is the moral side.

The right routinely claims they have a first amendment right to call gays disgusting perverts and pedophiles. They don’t think anyone has a first amendment right to criticize them for it. Any more than they respect the religious freedom of those whose faith says gay rights are good.

As the link in the first paragraph notes, the religious right has always claimed the real issue was that gay marriage shouldn’t be imposed by judges. But they complain just as much when legislatures pass gay marriage. And I guarantee that if the Roberts Court ever ruled that no state had the right to allow gay marriage, the religious right would celebrate without one peep about states’ rights.

Their homophobia is a minority, but that’s part of what makes them so angry. They really do believe they’re holier than us and not getting respected for it, seeing the world ignore their wishes, is making them more vicious than ever.

I look forward to the day their hate is largely toothless but we’re not there yet.

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