Friday, April 20, 2018

Jack Kirby's Black Panther

Black Panther Vs. Abominable Snowman!
Jack Kirby's Black Panther (1976-78; collected in two volumes 2005): written by Jack Kirby with Jim Shooter and Ed Hannigan; illustrated by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer with Denys Cowan: Jack Kirby's Black Panther followed the cancellation of Jungle Action and the premature end to Don McGregor and Billy Graham's run on Black Panther in that Marvel comic book. Readers who followed the character from one book to the next must have suffered from whiplash. 

Kirby's Black Panther is a super-scientific adventurer whose first multi-issue adventure involves a team-up with a diminuitive collector of weird antiquities named Mr. Little on a quest to find the second of two objects known as King Solomon's Frogs. They've discovered one. It periodically pulls someone or something in from another time. Together, the two assume, the two frogs should form a controllable time machine. OK!

This is Jack Kirby in full-on lunacy mode. It's great lunacy, mile-a-second action, wild double-page spreads, and some of the oddest of Kirby's 1970's narratives. I mean, a time machine shaped like a frog (why?) is weird enough. 

But the time machine will eventually pull in a dangerous, hyper-evolved human from millions of years in the future. There will also be a hidden kingdom founded by seven samurai. There will be a half-brother of T'Challa (that is, the Black Panther) who will seize control of the kingdom of Wakanda. There will be a Council of relatives of the Black Panther who will come together from across the world to battle that half-brother while T'Challa is stuck in the samurai kingdom.

Oh, and a lost Black Panther will stumble across a science-fiction movie filming in the North African desert. It isn't Star Wars, but it's clearly a nod to the Tunisia filming location of Star Wars. Kirby's work on a film adaptation of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light would be used to help some of the American hostages out of Iran. Remember Argo? They actually shot but didn't use a scene with Jack Kirby. It's true!

Whiplash, though, oh boy! This is rollicking science fantasy laced with absurdity. If you like more serious versions of Black Panther that address social and racial concerns, this is probably not your Black Panther. I love it. I love McGregor's version too. I am entertained by multitudes! Highly recommended.

Black Panther: Panther's Rage

One of many dynamic pages from Graham and McGregor

Black Panther: Panther's Rage (Marvel Epic Collection Volume 1) (1966, 1973-1976; collected 2015): written by Don McGregor; illustrated by Billy Graham, Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, Klaus Janson, and others: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee gave Black Panther life. Don McGregor and artists Rich Buckler and especially Billy Graham gave the character a soul. And note that the character predates the 1960's political movement of the same name by several months.

The recent Marvel movie used a number of elements from the McGregor-penned run included in this collection. Much is different, however. After reprinting the Black Panther's first two-issue appearance in Fantastic Four in 1966, this volume reprints McGregor's entire run on Black Panther from Marvel's Jungle Action comic book. What a ride it is!

The Lee/Kirby two-parter is fascinating insofar as it gives us an African superhero who rules over a seemingly backwater African nation that's actually a hive of super-technological sophistication. Beyond that, Black Panther is fairly boilerplate -- a noble fellow with a desire for revenge against white villain Ulysses Klaw. Still, the storyline is notable not only because the Black Panther is the first modern black superhero from a major comic-book company, but because Wyatt Wingfoot, a smart non-superhero Native American, saves the day in the first of the two Lee/Kirby issues. It's sort of a racial milestone for American superheroes.

McGregor's stuff is a whole different story. The mix of super-science and tradition remains in the Black Panther's country of Wakanda. McGregor's interests are such that Black Panther becomes a self-sacrificing, self-doubting character very early in the arc, with subsequent issues building on these attributes. 

This Black Panther had moved to America and joined the Avengers after his intro in FF; McGregor's work brings him back to a Wakanda that's grown turbulent in his absence. And Erik Killmonger (the villain of the movie as well) intends to wrest control of Wakanda from the Black Panther.

What follows is one of the longest sustained narratives in American superhero comic books to that point in the mid-1970's, one of the first true serialized graphic novels. Initial artist Rich Buckler does solid work. Once Billy Graham comes on board, the art really soars. And it's notable that Graham is one of the first African-American artists to work on a major publisher's superhero book.

Graham and McGregor are ambitious in their storytelling ambitions -- a variety of intriguing single and double-page compositions are just one way the art stands out. Graham is especially good at character work, faces and poses that make each character an individual. An issue inked by P. Craig Russell is especially fine as a horror story filled with grotesques.

The Black Panther's physical sufferings throughout McGregor's run, depicted and described in detail, cast him repeatedly in the role of a suffering Christ figure -- albeit a two-fisted Christ. I don't know that any mainstream superhero has had his suffering depicted in such detail. It ties into McGregor's ethos insofar as McGregor tempers the thrills of superheroics with repeated examinations of the physical and mental ramifications of Men in Tights walloping one another.

Erik Killmonger's plans ultimately occupy 13 (!) issues of Jungle Action. As Jungle Action was bimonthly, this first arc (titled Panther's Rage) went on for more than two years. Subsequently, McGregor and Graham send the Black Panther back to America to battle the KKK. Never let it be said that McGregor shied away from political and social issues. Alas, Marvel cancelled Jungle Action before the Klan storyline was over. It's still a bracing bit of storytelling. In all, highly recommended.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Soylent Green (1973)

Soylent Green (1973): adapted from the Harry Harrison novel Make Room! Make Room! by Stanley R. Greenberg; directed by Richard Fleischer; starring Charlton Heston (Thorn), Leigh Taylor-Young (Shirl), Chuck Connors (Tab), Joseph Cotten (Simonson), Brock Peters (The Chief), and Edward G. Robinson (Sol Roth): 

Soylent Green's grungy, beige-and-green, run-down, over-populated world of 2022 is a great aesthetic creation for the set designers and costume people. The movie infamously adds a ridiculous 'twist' to Harry Harrison's science-fiction novel about Malthusian over-population so as to make the movie more 'popular.' Now it's the only thing people remember about the movie. Oh, well. Chuck Heston is solid and stolid as a dogged policeman investigating a murder and being pursued by shadowy figures who don't want the reason for that murder to come out.

The best thing about Soylent Green is Edward G. Robinson's performance as Heston's partner, a man old enough to remember Earth That Was, and mourn it. Robinson knew that he'd be dead of cancer soon after filming, and he was -- he died days after the final wrap. What he delivers here is a jewel of a performance. He elevates the material to Art in every scene he's in. He moves the whole movie up from lightly recommended to Recommended.

Andre the Giant (2018)

Andre the Giant (2018): directed by Jason Hehir: André Roussimoff was the man most of us knew as Andre the Giant. He was a wonder. This documentary does a nice job of depicting The Man in Full, though the section on the WWE/WWF's elevation of Hulk Hogan to Number One Wrestler is a sidebar that takes up too much of the film. 

The untreated acromegaly that made André Roussimoff into a giant also killed him at the age of 46. This makes me sad. The tales of André's legendary capacity for alcohol are welcome, but I'd still like to know more about the man and not the nickname. Recommended.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954): written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni; directed by Akira Kurosawa; starring Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo), Takashi Shimura (Shimada), Keiko Tsushima (Shino), Kamatari Fujiwara (Manzo), and Bokuzen Hidari (Yohei): Akira Kurosawa's intimate epic is still one helluva thing 64 years after its first appearance. Haunting images, hectic action, low comedy, quiet character moments -- it's as broad and deep a movie as has ever been made. There's nothing I can add to a discussion of it other than to note that it's swell -- Watch it! Highest recommendation.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Paterno (2018)

Paterno (2018): written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards; directed by Barry Levinson; starring Al Pacino (Joe Paterno); Riley Keough (Sara Ganim), Benjamin Cook (Aaron Fisher), Kristen Bush (Dawn Fisher): Solid biopic focuses on the chaotic two-week period in November 2011 during which legendary Penn State college football coach Joe Paterno fell from grace as the decades-long pedophiliac predations of his long-time defensive coach Jerry Sandusky came to horrifying public attention despite years of cover-ups by Penn State coaches and administrators. 

How much Paterno knew and when remains a point of contention, and the movie does not authoritatively state when Paterno knew and what he did. Damning emails suggest that at the very least he knew 14 years before the events of the film. Testimony from some of the accusers suggest that Paterno may have been covering up Sandusky's predations for decades. Why? The movie suggests more than anything that a pedophile was a distraction from the business of winning football and molding minds and building a legacy at Penn State. 

A thankfully subdued Al Pacino plays Paterno as a man who may have had a guilty conscience, but whose focus on football, football, football not only isolated him from worries about pedophiles but larger questions of morality and responsibility. Pacino is good as Paterno, though he pretty much just plays a quiet version of himself. 

Among other things, this is a very good study by Levinson and his writers of how a cover-up gains and gathers its own momentum over the years, crushing morality beneath it but also crushing those who perpetuated it if the truth comes out. Riley Keough is solid and under-stated as Sara Ganim, the reporter who first broke the story, waited six months for anyone to pay attention, and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for her journalism. Recommended.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One (2018): adapted from the Ernest Cline novel by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Tye Sheridan (Wade/ Parzival), Olivia Cooke (Samantha/ Atr3mis), Ben Mendelsohn (Forgettable Corporate Villain), Lena Waithe (Helen/ Aech), T.J. Miller (I-R0k), Mark Rylance (Halliday), and Simon Pegg (Ogden Morrow): 

Steven Spielberg's latest is also the latest in a now never-ending stream of movies to Break the Internet, Ready Player One is an enjoyable, slight adventure that improves upon the novel by virtue of being able to show some of the adventures inside virtual reality. 

Our boilerplate young hero, aged-up to 18 from high-school age and made slim because God forbid some goddamned fat kid should be the hero of a $175 million movie, wanders the virtual reality Oasis in a dystopic, corporate-controlled future. 

He's on a quest to find three Easter Eggs left in the Oasis by its late creator (Mark Rylance, game as ever but woefully too old for the role). He teams up with four other freedom-fighting young whippersnappers online and then in the real world to find the Eggs and gain control of the Oasis before nightmarish corporation IOI wins the hunt and puts ads everywhere. I guess. Net neutrality forever!

A sequence set 'inside' Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is the showstopper, after which things seem to go on forever to rapidly decreasing effect. That Spielberg and company added a gratuitous, lengthy, real-world car chase intercut with the virtual climax of the movie isn't so much gilding the lily as it is covering it in lead. 

Ben Mendlesohn is about as forgettable a corporate villain as one can imagine, which seems to be the point. That his online avatar appears to be the Berni Wrightson-designed Captain Sternn from the Heavy Metal movie just seems baffling. Due to rights issues, the entire film takes place in an alternate future in which Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars never existed. Lightly recommended.