Saturday, 28 May 2016

A Game of Marvels: Part Two - SHAZAM!

Billy, do be a hero…

Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it’s Captain Marvel -
the first superhero to be given a movie serial (played by cowboy star
and sometimes mummy, Tom Tyler).
The original Captain Marvel, created in 1939, possessed the Wisdom of Solomon, The strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, Invulnerability of Achilles and speed of Mercury. Young Billy Batson only had to speak the acronym made from the first letters of those mythological deities names: SHAZAM, and ‘the world’s mightiest mortal’ would appear in his place.

It’s a wonderful concept, which DC comics finally admitted it to themselves in 1972, licensing the rights from the company they forbade from continuing the Captain’s adventures in 1953 - Fawcett comics.
Unbelievably, before this happened, yet another Captain Marvel appeared briefly on the comic stands.

Always falling apart in a crisis, this Captain Marvel didn't last very long.
An android who could disassemble himself by shouting “Split” and recombine with the suspiciously familiar cry of “Xam!” was published by MF Publications under the title of Captain Marvel in 1966 but only lasted a few issues before splitting forever.

Room for one more?
During the 1950s L Miller and Son published black and white reprints of Captain Marvel’s adventures in Britain. When DC successfully shut down Fawcett comics continuation of the character, Miller and Son found suddenly themselves deprived of their successful product. So they created a barely altered version of the Captain called Marvelman, popular enough to run until 1963. “Kimota!” (‘Atomik’ backwards) replaced the catchphrase ’Shazam’. The character was later revived in 1982 under the name Miracleman (Marvel comics objected to the use of their name), but that’s another story.
Marvelman, and the angsty, 1982 revived version 'Miracleman'.
Back to DC and their purchase of the original Captain Marvel at the beginning of the 1970s. They found that they now owned the character, but not the title, which had been trademarked by Marvel comics since 1967. And so, whenever the Captain has appeared in his own DC comics adventure, the name on the cover has been Shazam! (leading to the ‘Doctor Who’ syndrome - it’s the title of his series, not his name)

DC recognises the character's brilliance and 'with one magic word' bring
him back in 1972. Marvel Comics objected to the tagline 'The original Captain Marvel'
so it was eventually changed to 'the world's mightiest mortal'.
As an upbeat Golden Age figure Captain Marvel has had a checkered history in the modern DC comics world, joining the Justice League International but most successfully used as a supporting character. Altercations with his historical rival Superman are often depicted, usually as a result of one or the other falling under malign mind control.

Boys will be boys... not for the first, or last, time Captain Marvel
and Superman come to blows over a misunderstanding.
(Personally, I'd like to see them both just beat up Batman)
Most recently, he has been sporting a ‘hoodie’ and the moniker 'Shazam' in an attempt to emphasise the magical aspects of the character.  Hmmm...

It remains to be seen where DC's most recent reboot will leave the Captain. But despite these abuses the world’s mightiest mortal perseveres. He is still an instantly recognisable figure and DC have even optimistically announced an upcoming film version. Having the Marvel and DC Captain Marvels in the cinema at the same time would be quite something.

More than any other superhero, the original Captain Marvel remains representation of a sunnier, more innocent past, ‘the Man of Yesterday’ rather than tomorrow, and perhaps that’s why he is still popular today.

Monday, 23 May 2016

A Game of Marvels: Part One - The Marvel Captain

What’s in a name?

My Dad turned 80 recently, and unlike many people advancing in age seems to broaden his mind with every passing year. He’s even happy to talk about superheroes and his favourite has always been Captain Marvel.
So he might be interested to hear that there is a Captain Marvel film slated for release in 2019, but the not-so-good news is this...

When he talks about Captain Marvel he means this Gentleman

When Marvel refer to their upcoming film they mean this Lady
And furthermore, when I first read
Captain Marvel he looked this
Oops, I mean this
(see you in court, Pixar)

And those are only the best-known three of many figures who have held the name Captain Marvel in comic book history.

How on earth in the litigious world of comics, where rival publishers sue at the merest hint of a similar costume detail, did a convoluted situation like this ever arise?

It all began in 1939 when comic publishers Fawcett attempted to launch ‘Flash’ comics featuring a super powered figure called Captain Thunder.

Both those names had already been used and so the character was relaunched in 1940 as my Dad’s favourite: Captain Marvel in Whiz comics.

Although the name was now cleared, we can’t help but draw similarities between that cover, and this one featuring the first appearance of a another caped superhuman from two years previously.

Captain Marvel's prototype and official first appearance.
Don't know who the guy on the right is...
The company now known as DC, publishers of Superman’s adventures, certainly noticed as well. As Captain Marvel’s popularity began to soar, out-selling every other title on the comic stands, including the Man of Steel’s, they decided to do something about it and took Fawcett to court.

Although one of the keys to Captain Marvel’s success was that his adventures appealed more to a younger demographic (his alter-ego is Billy Batson - a 12-year-old boy, and he was later joined by Mary Marvel - a Girl’s Own superheroine), DC made a case that the ‘big red cheese’ infringed too closely on the appearance and character of their ‘boy in blue’.

It didn’t go DC’s way at first, but Fawcett eventually settled out-of-court and in 1953 agreed to cease publication of Captain Marvel. The truth was that the character’s popularity had been in steady decline since his heyday in the war years (battling nemeses like ‘Captain Nazi) and continuing the fight was no longer worth it for Fawcett.

Enter Marvel comics - opportunists extraordinaire, but also probably justifiably anxious that a character bearing their company name had belonged to another publisher.

They bought the rights to the Captain Marvel name and in 1967 launched the first in a long line of characters to bear the title. In the Marvel Universe, the name Captain Marvel is more of a franchise than a single figure (enabling them to retain the trademark), and the current (7th!) incarnation: Carol Danvers, is admittedly a welcome female presence in a comic universe which features relatively few memorable superheroines.

Marvel's first go at their own Captain -
who's attempt to merge into one of our Earth
crowds undetected appears to be an epic fail.

Ironically, the first Marvel iteration of the Captain was even more like Superman than Fawcett’s - an alien called Mar-Vell sent to our Planet who adopts a secret identity and stays to become Earth’s champion. A member of the Kree race (currently name-checked vigorously in the Agent’s of Shield TV series), this Captain Marvel switches his allegiance to humanity, and in 1969 received a makeover which lead to my jumping-on point for the character.

This change of costume didn't do much for the characters anonymity,
But he could swap bodies with an ordinary human for a limited period.
(presumably by saying "Shazam"?)

But Marvel Comic’s success has always been due to them never being content to simply follow the conventions and in 1982, in arguably the first-ever graphic novel, Captain Marvel died (really died). Despite having become one of the most cosmically powerful figures in the Marvel universe the Captain falls victim to lung cancer (in a convoluted tale I’m certainly not going to go into here), giving rise to a succession of figures adopting his mantle.

The original Captain Marvel meets some of Marvel's Captains
Former ‘Ms Marvel’ Carol Danvers currently holds the title, and has built an impressive readership of her own. You go, Girl.

Ms Marvel (later to become Captain Marvel) flies into action,
apparently unconcerned that she appears to have left half her costume behind.
But the original Captain Marvel which Fawcett created wasn’t to remain absent for long. Lightning was to strike again, within the pages of the company who once banished him forever.

Next time
A Game of Marvels Part 2: SHAZAM!

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Amazing Race

A mysterious, enlightened tribe of superhumanly-fast endurance runners, previously hidden from the world in deep Mexican canyons who emerged to smash ultramarathon records in the early 1990s? Oh, run along…

The Tarahumara know how to dress
I have a work friend called Bill who is one of the funniest men I have ever met.  Relentlessly self-deprecating and always quick to highlight the absurdity of any situation - when he told me that he had read a book about running which had changed his life I waited for the punchline. Instead he went on to tell me with evangelical zeal how much he was now loving running, brought the book in the next day to me and told me that he didn’t want it back, but did want me to pass it on when I’d finished.
There was no sarcasm or irony here, Bill really had been born again by the Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run.

I started to read it for two reasons  - I was intrigued by Bill’s uncharacteristic transformation and secondly, I realised that I wasn’t enjoying running as much as I used to. Somehow this year it feels as if I’d been dragging an atypically reluctant body around, instead of my usual contended loping.  A list of excuses is always close to hand, entering my fifth decade, congenitally flat feet, persistently hot weather.  But I wanted to persevere - being able to leave the house with no equipment, transport, booking, venue or team commitments and simply exercise by putting one foot in front of the other embodies physical and mental freedom to me. 

Picking up Born to Run has resulted in my desire to write about this book outstripping my meagre reading speed.  I’ve only completed the first section, which I am assured that isn’t the most important part, but this is already one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever read.

There’s something of a modern fascination with ancient Sparta and its army, who achieved a legendary physical prowess through utter devotion to their training.  But who knew that in the copper Canyons of Chihuahua in Mexico, there is an elusive race equally dedicated, not to war, but the art of long distance running?

Look at those smiles - these people love to run
McDougall first heard about the Tarahumara people when he found what he described as ‘a photograph of Jesus running down a rockslide’, in a Spanish travel magazine.  The description was not only visually apt, but the robed and sandalled runner also came from a race dedicated to honesty and philanthropy.  When the superhuman athleticism of these people also became apparent to Westerners, the Spartan comparison was not far behind, but as McDougall is quick to point out  “Unlike the Spartans the Tarahumara are as benign as Bodhisattvas, they don’t use their superhuman strength to kick ass, but to live in peace”.

They withdrew into the canyons after disastrous contact with the Spanish Conquistadores, and for hundreds of years were able to exist almost entirely isolated from the outside world. With widely dispersed settlements, the Tarahumara people developed a tradition of long-distance running for inter-village communication and hunting, covering up to 320 km non-stop over a period of two days.

Not only have they established a culture and economy based on altruism and happiness and achieve one of the lowest disease rates in the world but the Tarahumara also created a wonder food to enhance their legendary athleticism. Iskiate is made of dissolved chia seeds, bursting with protein, minerals and antioxidants.  As McDougall says, iskiate is not only the only food you would need on a desert Island, but it could also enable you to swim home.

Inevitably exploited once again by western greed in the early 1990s, these shy superhumans briefly humiliated ultramarathon runners on the toughest courses available, before leaving their sponsored track shoes (which they never wore) and squabbling ‘promoters’ behind to return to their own lives again.

The author meets an eccentric hermit who left everything behind to follow the Tarahumara home, and in gaining his trust begins to learn the secret of these people.  This passage has got me pulling my own running shoes on again and aspiring to be more like a Tarahumara (though goodness knows their preschoolers would outrun me).

“Think easy, light, smooth and fast.  You start with easy, because if that’s all you get that’s not so bad. Then work on light, make it effortless, like you don’t care how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go.  When you’ve practised that so long you forget you’re practising, you work on making it smooth.  … you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”

I hadn’t been doing any of those things, and no wonder I haven’t been enjoying running recently.  But from now on I’m going to 'pitter-patter' with a straight back and a smile on my face like the Tarahumara do … and come back to review this book properly when I’ve finished it.

The rugged terrain which is the Tarahumara running track

Monday, 9 May 2016

Marvel Arch

We all have to start somewhere, even billion-dollar film franchises.

Marvel Studios have surfed an almost unbroken wave of colossal financial success since their first feature, Iron Man, in 2008.  Even their lesser performing films have made back more than double their budgets, while their heaviest hitter: The Avengers, made over one and half billion US dollars.
I’ve still yet to see Captain America; Civil War but apparently my ticket money is going to make very little difference to the stellar box-office takings of this take on an armoured billionaire v a big blue Boy Scout, done right.

Overall, it’s a track record which must surely drive rival studios, and comics publishers, batty.
Even other companies fortunate enough to own rights to certain Marvel characters have found themselves sitting on a goldmine - 20th Century Fox made one of their biggest profits in history with Deadpool earlier this year, while Sony Pictures still own Marvels’ highest earning figurehead to date - Spider-Man.

But it hasn’t always been this way.  In 1986 rival comics company DC were still basking in the success of three Superman feature films when the first Marvel character made his way to the big screen.  Was it one of their pantheon of super-powered heroes or a mighty-muscled Avenger? Actually, even though there had been a very cheap Captain America serial in the 1940s, Marvel’s first big budget cinema star was … a talking duck.

Howard the Duck, starring a wise-cracking waterfowl from another dimension, was produced by no less a name than George Lucas, starred Tim Robbins and boasted effects by ILM. However the end result was unanimously mauled by critics and still listed by the LA times in 2014 as one of the costliest box office flops of all time.  Out for a duck - this was hardly a foreshadowing of the colossal amount of love and revenue Marvel’s film adaptations generate today.

Howard the Duck returned at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy (inset)
almost 30 years after his disastrous debut.
In New Zealand in 1977, eager youngsters were able to part with their pocket money to see Spider-Man on the big screen.  But this certainly wasn’t a Hollywood-produced blockbuster.  Instead, and certainly not for the last time, this was an American TV movie pilot was being hawked around overseas cinemas.
Star Nicolas Hammond made enough of an impact for those same kids to again fork out money for the sequel (actually two episodes of the ensuing TV series edited together) and Hammond was even invited to take part in Television New Zealand’s 1979 Telethon.

The original Spider-Man pretty much did whatever a man can.
Enjoying relative success with Spidey, and the long-running incredible Hulk television series starring Bill Bixby it was to be the small screen where Marvel focussed their efforts for the next decade.  And it was also here that a succession of TV Movies which would probably make contemporary Marvel executives want to wear masks themselves, resulted.  

Later this year audiences will be able to thrill to Benedict Cumberbatch as Sorcerer Supreme: Doctor Strange, but few will remember the 1978 Universal TV pilot movie of the same name.  Starring a permed actor called Peter Hooten, but also featuring a slightly better known thespian called John Mills, it’s ratings did not lead to a series being picked up. Marvel head Stan Lee kindly suggested this could have been due to Doctor Strange’s time-slot opposite acclaimed historical series Roots

It remains to be seen whether Benedict Cumberbatch will be a better Doctor Strange
than Peter Hooten was in 1978.
The following year no less a figure than Captain America exploded onto the small screen in a white and blue motorcycle helmet.  Reb Brown starred as Cap in two TV Movies again for Universal, promptly disappearing again until the current success of the character encouraged DVDs of these films to begin furtively reappearing on retail shelves.  An even lesser-regarded direct-to-video Captain America film starring Matt Salinger (this time with little rubber wings affixed the sides of his head), appeared in 1990, to howls of critical derision.

Captain America through the ages (Chris Evans not pictured)
It was the turn of two more Avengers to meet small screen ignominy in 1988, when Thor and the Hulk combined forces in TV series revival attempt: The Incredible Hulk Returns.  Chris Hemsworth’s current charismatic portrayal of the 'norse god' Thor has made him an undeniable access point to Marvel for female viewers, but Eric Kramer’s TV movie portrayal, clad in tight leather pants and a very shaggy jerkin, made considerably less impact.

By Thunder - it's Hammer Time!
As usual, the TV alter ego of the Hulk himself was, ‘David’ (rather than “Bruce’) Banner as executives decided to break from decades of comics tradition because the alliterative name sounded ‘too gay’. Having him played by an actor named Bill Bixby seemed to render this dubious point moot.

By the 1990s three of the now-beloved Avengers were down and out, reputations besmirched and options for series abandoned.  Could any further humiliation possibly be waiting in store for mighty Marvel?

Samuel L Jackson has met universal acclaim for his recurring supporting role of Nick Fury, giving support and guidance to the Avengers through almost all their films.  But before Fury was ever played by one of contemporary cinema’s paragon of cool he was first portrayed in a 1998 TV movie pilot by another iconic figure: David Hasselhoff.  Written by David Goyer, whose work was most recently seen in Batman v Superman for DC, a series was once again not forthcoming, despite the best efforts of the Hoff.

Samuel L Jackson wasn't a patch on the Hoff
But as any comic reader knows, the hero is always brought lowest before rising up to triumph in the end.  As we approached the millennium, lesser-powered Marvel characters The Punisher and Blade quietly laid groundwork for big-hitters the X-Men and Spider-Man to re-take the big screen, and since the formation of marvel Studios in 2008, past indiscretions with live action depictions of their mightiest heroes appear to have been forgotten.

But perhaps Marvel are now also confident enough to believe that you should never forget where you came from.  Viewers waiting for the traditional post credits sequence at the end of the phenomenally successful Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 might have been surprised to meet a certain talking duck. 
Welcome back, Howard, the world is ready for you at last.

And here is a condensed version on, with video clips:

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

May the Scores be with you

Happy Star Wars day - here’s a tune which made Williams...

Much is made of the fact that the Star Wars orchestral film score was a massive hit, despite rubbing shoulders with Donna Summer and the Village People beneath a Death Star glitter ball at the height of disco.
Embryonic Star Wars geeks allowed to stay up late to watch the 1978 Oscars, as I was, were rewarded with this glorious affirmation - when ‘John met John’.

But perhaps it’s sometimes forgotten that record producer and musician Meco (Domenico) Monardo also took a disco-fied version of the Star Wars theme to the very top of the US Billboard charts for two weeks in 1977.

It spent a lot of time on the New Zealand charts, which made friends and I very happy, because that meant it featured on weekly music chart programme Ready to Roll.

We could just about wrap our heads around the idea that this wasn’t the genuine Star Wars theme, but a pop-orchestral knock-off which, despite sounding a little like ‘Born Free’, went down a storm at lunchtime discos.

But what was even weirder was the fact that Ready to Roll often presented us with a completely different version again. It appeared to be a quartet of middle-aged brass musicians possibly bringing a hint of jazz to the proceedings. But what made this unbearably awesome for us all was the generous intercutting with that ubiquitous pre-release teaser (the film was still a good six months from these shores) - footage of the Millennium Falcon’s escape from the Death Star.

As dearly as I’d love to track down this ‘music video’ I haven’t met with any success.

But I did find the following clip, which gives some idea of Ready to Roll’s own Oomph dancers, when they choreographed something similar back in 1977. No, don’t thank me, really...

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Tora, Tora, Sorer

When will I learn that a coastal running event
is never what it sounds like?

Beautiful Tora
Loping happily along the sunny Wairarapa shoreline with the sparkling pacific stretching to the horizon. Seals bobbing peacefully in the surf, seabirds wheeling overhead… and my goodness, what’s that cheering sound - is that the finishing line already?

Cue that 'needle being pulled across record' sound effect…

How about 6km of stupidly trying to keep pace with the race leaders until last night's curry feels ready to make an unfortunate reappearance, while sunburn and windburn vie for supremacy?
But this is the easiest part - now turn sharply inland for 10km of gruelling climbs and connective-tissue ripping descents.

Never forget where you've been...
You finally stagger back onto the road only to discover that another couple of kilometres of dusty gravel awaits, until you shamble across the finishing line at last, to a sympathetic smattering of applause.

Coastland run? You’ll barely see the sea - what you will see is a hell of a lot of steep farmland, and gravel.

How did the sea get so far away?

But was it fun?

One of the very few people I overtook, a fit looking young woman, actually clapped and shouted - “Go Bro - you’re doing really well!”

Volunteer marshals, stuck on the top of a ridge in blistering wind and sun for goodness only knows how long, smile and shout encouragement as you stagger past. (No, Sir and/or Madame, you are the true heroes, nay, superheroes of these events).

The cameraderie and sheer goodwill that runners have towards each other is a wonderful thing - as is the opportunity to feel alive, even as it numbs your lips and cramps your muscles.

And then there are the minor triumphs of human spirit all around you. Not so much the athletes at their prime, but ordinary people pushing themselves harder than they ever have before. Maybe overcoming illness, injury, diminished confidence - a thousand different stories about why they might choose to do this to themselves.

So although I have to confess that taken-for-granted fitness once effortlessly within my reach now requires so much more of a flailing stretch, yes, it was fun.

Thank you Tora Coastal challenge organisers and apologies to my own connective tissue - I suspect we won’t be best of friends tomorrow.