Weekly Wonderings – January 19th, 2021

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Last week I talked about nostalgia some, and that made me think about libraries. When I was a kid, going to the library every week was one of my favorite things in the world. I can remember libraries I visited going back to when I was about six or seven years old and even books I checked out and read from those places. I definitely do not to libraries much at all anymore, even before COVID-19. I think with the digital age, I can access books much more quickly. Part of that is thanks in part to my local library adapting to this new world and subscribing to ebook services. Here’s my weekly Spotify playlist first:

When my family lived in Rutherford County, Tennessee, I remember going to the public library and discovering mythology and comic books. Because I was so young, the order of events is muddled, so I’m not sure if I had already been given a comic book before checking out a reprint book at the library. Regardless, I remember bringing home Robin Meets Man-Bat. This was a transferring of a comic book read-aloud on a record to cassette tape format. The story came from a Neal Adams era Batman comic book, I’m guessing from Detective or Batman Family. I was horrified by the grotesque Man-Bat but loved the horror element of the comic.

That allure of horror is probably what drew me to Greek mythology stories in the non-fiction section. Doing a search online, I think my library had the Monsters of Mythology book series, with each volume chronicling the stories surrounding a creature from Greek folklore. I distinctly remember the Medusa book and learning about the Gorgons and the Graeae. The latter stood out to me because of the illustrations showing them sharing their singular eye.

It was this same library where I came across the D’Aulaires’ Book of North Mythology. The D’Aulaires were a husband and wife who wrote and illustrated massive children’s books about facets of folklore and mythology. It was in this book that I learned about Odin, Thor, and the Asgardian pantheon. I first saw the name Loki and learned about the tragedy of Balder. I was horrified by Loki’s children: the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Jörmungandr, and Hel. There’s a gorgeous illustration of Ragnarok in this book that gets across the epic scope of that fabled event. This book was a very formative one for me.

We moved around when I was nine, which meant a new, smaller library but with books I’d never encountered before. On one of those early trips to the Robertson County library, I discovered a Spider-Man book that was amazing. It reprinted Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #80, and many villain pin-ups and short features about Spider-Man’s powers. I think there were some text pieces inbetween to give context. I cannot for the life of me find the name of this book online, but I checked it out so many times.

Additionally, there was a Superman book in the adult non-fiction I came across as a kid. I learned the Dewey decimal system enough to know where the books on movies and comics would be. This Superman collection was published around his 50th anniversary in 1988, I’m guessing. It contained a reprint of his first appearance in Action Comics #1. I also remember a reprint of the first appearance of Brainiac, a team-up between Luthor, Toyman, and Prankster, and the first appearance of Mr. Myxzptlk. Because this was a book aimed at adults, there was a lot more text about the character’s publication history, and I ate all that up. This book, along with Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie, is responsible for starting my love of the Man of Steel and building my background knowledge on his mythos.

The third book from this same library that sparked my imagination is yet another title forgotten to the ages. It was a history of the Silver Age era of comics. No reprints but lots of covers were used throughout the book. I was pretty sure at the time this was part of a series, but my library didn’t have the Golden Age or Bronze Age parts. This was likely my first formal introduction to the idea that there was more than Flash and Green Lantern. In the DC Comics section, it detailed the crossovers between the Justice League and the Justice Society. I absolutely loved that, and it really got my imagination going about the possibilities.

I know I certainly can’t recreate these experiences. They were very much the things of childhood, discovery pre-Internet. As much as I absolutely love the internet, it has taken away the kind of exploration and discovery I used to have. That’s okay, though. I have seen kids still filled with the same sense of wonder whether they are online or handling a physical book. My nephew, who is in the first grade, will have his mom Facetime me every few weeks with a question about superheroes. Most recently, he wanted to share with me a story from one of his superhero books about Spider-Man and the Hulk getting combined into one character. Things just become less new with time, so we start to think we’ve lost some spark. We just know more now, so our joy can come from being those who help the kids of today become filled with wonder as they discover what was new to us once upon a time.

Movie Review – Marnie

Marnie (1964)
Written by Jay Presson Allen
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

All good things must come to an end. Marnie would mark the downturn of Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial career. He’d just come off a fantastic streak of films: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds. That many consecutive movies that immediately became iconic is quite an achievement, so it is a little unfair that critics turned their noses up so hard at what Hitch released for the rest of his career. On the other hand, he set the standard so high that we expect something brilliant. Marnie has all those things you expect in a Hitchcock movie but done so much more clunkily, with a deep strain of misogyny boring through the entire production. In some ways, Marnie is Hitch letting the mask slipping and showing too much of his true self to us.

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Movie Review – The Birds

The Birds (1963)
Written by Daphne du Maurier & Evan Hunter
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The Birds is unlike any Hitchcock film I have ever seen. Three years after shocking audiences with Psycho, a film that is also slightly off from most of the director’s work but still sharing some psychological traits, we get this straight up man versus nature horror film. The first half is very slow, almost a comedy-drama, and every once in a while, we get a hint that something is off. Then the second half hits, and the film slides into total chaos. What we get is what I see as a reasonably angry film that expresses some of Hitchcock’s misanthropy in horrifying and comedically absurd ways.

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TV Review – The Best of Amazing Stories Part 2

Remote Control Man (Season 1, Episode 10)
Original airdate: December 8, 1985
Written by Douglas Lloyd McIntosh & Steven Spielberg
Directed by Bob Clark

By 1986, Bob Clark had directed films like Black Christmas, Porky’s, and A Christmas Story. Quite an eclectic filmography. He was brought on to helm this comedic entry into Amazing Stories. Walter Poindexter is a paper pusher at the bottom of his corporate ladder, put upon by a shrieking housewife and two rotten sons. All Walter wants to do when he gets home is watch some television, but his wife sells the set while he is at work. Driving through the city, the man comes across a strange store that seems to grant the person’s ultimate wish. In this instance, Walter is given a magical television whose remote control brings the people out of the shows and into his home. 

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TV Review – Wandavision Episodes 1 & 2

Wandavision (Disney+)
Episodes 1 & 2
Written by Jac Schaeffer
Directed by Matt Shakman

Many people genuinely love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I am glad they have movies they can rewatch and enjoy like that. I wouldn’t count myself as someone enamored with superhero movies of any kind, though I do always give them a viewing. I am entertained by them, but I don’t think too much about the films when they are over. The most I revisit them is with my niece and nephew, who they honestly are intended for. The people who should get the most excited about superhero movies, Star Wars, and the like are little kids. 

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Movie Review – North by Northwest

North by Northwest (1959)
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

In my opinion, Alfred Hitchcock’s best works are his dark, psychological films. But, he did manage to deliver something outside of the box with North by Northwest. This is a classic Cold War espionage story about a case of mistaken identity and the fallout that ensues. It’s filled to the brim with Hitchcock’s wry humor and livened up by screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The final product is a lavish and certainly expensive film with the production traveling across the United States as its protagonist tries to get to the bottom of how he became entangled in this mess.

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Comic Book Review – Superman: The Man of Steel Volume One (2020)

Superman: The Man of Steel Volume One (2020)
Reprints The Man of Steel #1-6, Superman #1-4, Adventures of Superman #424-428, Action Comics #584-587
Written by John Byrne and Marv Wolfman
Art by John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Terry Austin, and Dick Giordano

Crisis on Infinite Earths was both a special event to celebrate 50 years of DC Comics and a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over. One of those characters given a fresh coat of paint was Superman, the company’s flagship star. This wasn’t the first attempt to reboot the superhero; he’d been through several soft reboots since his creation. From a visual perspective, you can see how Superman’s costume has evolved but so too have his powers, supporting cast, villains, and backstory. To make everything more cohesive and move the character out of his Silver Age tropes, DC brought on comics superstar John Byrne who had made a significant name for himself at Marvel with work on X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Alpha Flight. The changes Byrne implemented wouldn’t last forever, but eventually, they would become part of the mishmash of ideas that keeps the character going.

The first part of this collection is Byrne’s six-issue Man of Steel series, a retelling of Superman’s origins. When Superman was first introduced in 1938, a lot of these details weren’t there. Byrne was able to look back across almost 50 years of continuity, removing the contradictions and shape them into something more cohesive. A significant decision that angered a lot of fans was the erasure of Superboy from Superman’s history. Now he slowly developed his powers and didn’t fully come into his own until he was in his late teens/early twenties. Byrne also presents Krypton as a much colder place than shown initially during the Silver Age. In the 1950s and 60s, Superman’s homeworld was fleshed out with all sorts of silly details, and Byrne wanted to make things simpler. 

The post-Crisis Krypton is a place where physical contact and expressions of love & sex are forbidden. Jor-El has violated the fertility laws of his world and begun growing his and Lara’s child in a gestation matrix stolen from a government building. The scientist has become aware of the instability at the core of Krypton, irradiating the planet turning the whole orb into one massive piece of kryptonite. He and Lara name their still growing embryo Kal-El and launch him into space, knowing that the world he arrives on will turn their son into a near godlike being. And Byrne keeps Superman’s origins secret from the character until the very end of this mini-series.

Through the rest of The Man of Steel, we see Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, slowly developing and learning to control his powers. In the previous continuity, Jonathan & Martha Kent were dead, having passed just before Superboy transitioned into Superman. One of my favorite decisions that Byrne made was to keep the Kents alive and have them serve as Clark’s shoulder to cry on and get words of advice from. Byrne seems very intent on changing the dynamic that Superman was the real identity and Clark the fake one. Clark Kent is most certainly who this character is, and Superman is a guise he must create when his acts of goodwill are caught and broadcast to the world.

We get an issue focusing on the first lengthy meeting between Superman and Lois Lane, responsible for naming him after he rescues a space shuttle. Byrne keeps the snarkiness between Lois and Clark by having Clark arrive at the Daily Planet as the first person to secure an interview with this new hero. Lois had thought she was going to break that story and holds a grudge against Clark for a good long while. Later writers would soften that and lead to a point where Lois and Clark were dating. In the current comics, they are married with a teenage son, so things have come quite a long way.

There’s a slight issue where Superman meets Batman for the first time, one of my least favorite stories in the Man of Steel series. That’s quickly put to the side with the rest of the series that focuses on the conflict between Superman and very different Lex Luthor. Before Crisis, Luthor was just an evil scientist jealous of Superman’s power. Byrne transforms him into what a villain of the 1980s would really be, a massively wealthy corporate tyrant. Luthor practically owns Metropolis and is number one until Superman arrives. At first, he believes he can buy the Man of Steel, but once he sees his money doesn’t get him anywhere, the real grudge begins. Harvesting a bit of Superman’s DNA, Luthor has a clone made who devolves into the villain Bizarro and vows to do even more terrible things. 

The final chapter in Man of Steel finally digs into Superman discovering his Kryptonian origins as the ship he came into Earth in suddenly erupts with holographic simulations. Byrne cleverly parallels this with Clark’s last night in Smallville and unfinished conversation between him and Lana Lang, his high school sweetheart. I love Byrne’s characterization of Lana. She understands Clark better than he does himself and explains to him that she doesn’t pine anymore because he’s not any one person’s to possess. Superman belongs to the world, and living in misery over not getting to be with him is just pointless. It’s in this issue that we really see the beginning of Superman as he comes to terms with both his alien origins and his roots on Earth as a human being.

DC Comics devoted three monthly series to the Man of Steel with John Byrne writing & illustrating Superman and Action Comics. Marv Wolfman and artist Jerry Ordway were brought onto The Adventures of Superman. Each book has a distinctly different direction, with Superman being the title that most reinvented old characters & concepts. Action Comics was a team-up book that would have Superman joining forces with a new hero each issue. The Adventures of Superman took its name from the classic 1950s television series, and Wolfman tried to ground its stories in current events to an extent, less big-name supervillains and more generic evil scientists and dictators. The series didn’t seem to share subplots at first, but that would change over time, with the Superman titles essentially becoming a weekly series for a few years.

In my opinion, the Superman issues are the best part of the collection, but that is likely heavily colored by my personal nostalgia. When I was a kid, I remember going to K-Mart and picking up a grab bag of assorted comics. Inside the two bags I got were Byrne’s Superman #2-4 plus some Batman books written by Jim Starlin. I remember being stunned by Superman #3, where the Man of Steel, as part of the Legends crossover event, is teleported to Apokalips, where he confronts Darkseid and recalls the New Gods. I had faint memories of these characters from Challenge of the Superfriends and was immediately obsessed. This issue also had house ads for Giffen & DeMatteis’s upcoming Justice League reboot, which you know is one of my all-time favorites. 

Where the book is weak are those Wolfman issues of Adventures of Superman. He’s definitely trying to carve out his own path with the book, and some of his ideas did have staying power in Superman’s mythos for over a decade. He introduces Qurac (an obvious analog for Iraq) and Professor Emil Hamilton, which became critical components in Superman’s life. We can thank Wolfman for the Lex Luthor reinvention. Back in the late 1970s/early 80s, DC was pushing for reinventions of elements in the Superman books. Wolfman pitched having Brainiac go from being a green-skinned alien into a xenomorph-like robot being that could bond and reshape itself. That was accepted, but his other idea of Luthor becoming a “legitimate” businessman who used his wealth to fight Superman was put on the back burner.

As someone who read many of these issues piecemeal, out of order, and with large gaps inbetween, it’s nice to see how they work in order. It’s funny that while I love reading this era, I had the opposite reaction with the New 52 initiative that tried to do the same sort of reinvention of Superman but didn’t take as well. Funnily enough, next month, I will be reading and reviewing the Grant Morrison Superman omnibus that collects his take on Superman’s early days in Metropolis to see what a drastically different direction he went. That’s one of the things I love about Superman, how he can be so transformed but still have these constants that exist that him who he is. I look forward to diving deeper with each volume in this series to see how Byrne and company continue to reinvent villains and characters to create a Superman for the late 20th century.

Movie Review – The Dark and The Wicked

The Dark and The Wicked (2020)
Written & Directed by Bryan Bertino

I don’t think I like Bryan Bertino’s films. This is the third movie by this director I’ve watched, with the others being The Strangers and The Monster. He simply has no depth to his work. It’s all surface level, atmospheric, yes but with no meaningful character development. The Dark and The Wicked may be his absolute worst film to date. I love horror, especially slow-burn horror; however, it must be building to something. I need to understand and sympathize with the characters to feel something for them when they are tormented. We learn almost nothing about these characters, and so we ultimately don’t care.

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Movie Review – The Kid Detective

The Kid Detective (2020)
Written & Directed by Evan Morgan

When I was a kid, I was a fairly regular reader of the Encyclopedia Brown book series. Brown was a middle school student who worked as his neighborhood’s local kid detective. Each book had around ten interlinked stories that end on a cliffhanger. The reader is expected to notice an inconsistency in a suspect’s dialogue that hints at their guilt. I can say only once do I remember solving the mystery before checking the back of the book for the answer. Brown has served as an inspiration for many other kid detectives and many satire pieces on the genre recently. I recall The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno and Donald Glover’s Mystery Team as pieces of media that touch on the concept of child detectives turned adults.

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PopCult on Patreon

2021 is the year I make a big push to grow PopCult into something beyond what it has been. Readership jump tremendously in 2020 with a 29% increase in page views and a 32% jump in visitors. Part of our growth will be centered around Patreon. I don’t expect I will live independently off of Patreon, but I think I could generate enough to pay a couple of bills a month. For more on what’s going on with me at the start of the year, read up on last week’s Weekly Wonderings.

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