Friday, September 28, 2012

COMICS IN THE CAMPER: DECONNICK AND NOTO GIVE UP THE "GHOST"



Ghost #0, Cover Art by Jenny Frison

I’ve always liked stories about human interaction with ghosts. I’m not talking about innocent teens in bikinis in a cabin being terrorized by evil, demonic ghosts kind of ghosts. I’m talking about the good ghosts. I’m talking Randall and Hopkirk, Topper, Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds in The Time Of Their Lives, Charles Laughton in The Canterville Ghost, Ghost and Mrs. Muir (movie AND tv series). I’m talking Casper and Funky Phantom (that’s right, I went there with Funky Phantom, you didn’t’ think I would, did ya?)
 
Randall(right) & ghost pal Hopkirk(left)
 
Ghost in the 90s
There hasn’t been a whole lot to choose from regarding some of the more serious stories among the selection listed above. Which was probably why I enjoyed the character “Ghost” when she first debuted back in the early 90s. Part of Dark Horse’s “Comics Greatest World” line, Ghost was a, well, ghost. The ghost of a woman who was trying to figure out who she was and why she was a ghost. The comic didn’t have the best writing in the world and seemed to lack direction from what I remember. It did have some lovely Adam Hughes art as I recall (the original series has been collected in several Omnibus Editions). But while it might have dragged on interminably at times, it was the premise that kept me tagging along. I liked how the character had that throne of jade (the only substance she was unable to walk through) in her cemetery lair and enjoyed the character's look and abilities.
 
The Ghost returns.  Words by DeConnick, Art by Noto
 
So I was excited to see that Dark Horse had revived the character and was interested in seeing what Kelly Sue “Captain Marvel” DeConnick and Phil “X-23” Noto would do with the character. Ghost #0 collects the three serialized “Ghost” stories that ran in Dark Horse Presents issues 13-15. The story has the host of one of those cheesy “Ghost Hunters” type shows actually seeing a real ghost of a woman dressed in white named Resurrection Mary. Vaughn, the host’s partner, is fascinated by the woman in white and has somehow gotten a hold of a device whose purpose seems to be to capture the white cloaked wraith. But things get even weirder when Vaughn discovers that the ghost can become tangible. Tangible enough to save Vaughn and his friend from being killed by hoods representing the owner of the mysterious device.
 
This isn’t a big flashy story. It quietly lures you in with a bit of fun and mystery and builds up a nice level of suspense as it goes along. I’m not sure where DeConnick is going with this but I like how she is packaging and presenting this mystery/ghost story. I also like what Phil Noto is doing with the art. Noto reminds me of a quieter, subtler version of Leinil Yu. Noto has a clean, defined style and he gives us characters with interesting expressions. And that seems to fit the tone that DeConnick is going with. I like what I see so far. I liked the scene where they have that green night vision camera thing that you always see in those Ghost Hunter tv shows. The story has humor to it, which is a good thing but it also has some shock value as well. It is a ghost story, after all. DeConnick and Noto seem to be a nice fit for this character. My experience reading this was similar to the enjoyment I had reading Jim McCann’s Mind The Gap, and that’s a good thing. I’m definitely going to tag along with DeConnick, Noto and Ghost.
 

 
 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

DOCTOR WHO IN THE CAMPER: THE CASE FOR NYSSA

After reading the great SFX article  on the best and worst companion departures on Doctor Who, I felt I had to make the case for one that was conspicuously absent, one of my personal favorite Doctor Who companions: Nyssa.







Nyssa was played with great subtlety, innocence and sensitivity by British actor Sarah Sutton. Nyssa was one of the most criminally underused and underrated companions in the history of the series. The things that were so wonderful about the character Nyssa were also sources of frustration for me and many other Nyssa fans around the world as well as Sutton herself.  Nyssa had everything going for her from a narrative standpoint yet writers and show producers seemed to have no clue what to do with her. Her character was steeped in tragedy. She was born into an aristocratic family, a princess in all but name from the planet Traken. She was a genius who specialized in biomechanics. Her stepmother and father were both killed by one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies, The Master.



The Master, having used up all his regenerations and in desperate need of a new body, took over the body of Nyssa’s father in an effort to extend his own life. Every time she encountered The Master on her travels with the Doctor, she had the added pain of having to see her fathers face. On top of all of this, Nyssa’s planet was destroyed by the Master, leaving her without her family or a home world. Nyssa was from a pacifist world that strived for a peaceful universe. She never sought personal revenge on The Master for killing her family and her world but she was often integral in foiling his plans and helping the Doctor to save the universe countless times.  She was personally responsible for helping the Doctor transition through a 4th regeneration that nearly cost him his life.

 
 
The relationship between the fifth Doctor and Nyssa was a paternal one. She was very young, much like the second Doctor’s companion Zoe, although without Zoe’s arrogance. The crew of the Tardis at that time consisted of sassy and outspoken stewardess Tegan, the young and perpetually questioning and curious mathematical genius Adric and the pawn of the Black Guardian turned friend, Turlough (who joined the crew after the death of Adric). It was very much a family vibe and, in a way, it sort of resembled the family dynamic of Lost In Space. The Doctor was Dr. Robinson, Adric was Will Robinson, Nyssa was Penny and Turlough(pictured below) was somewhat like Dr. Smith in that he started as an enemy and often put his own agenda before the lives of the others. Tegan was an aggressive Judy Robinson. Like the crew of Lost in Space, the crew of the Tardis even traveled with a robot by the name of Kamelion(above right).  It was probably the largest entourage in Doctor Who history.



However, as with any large family, there are those children who tend to get lost in the shuffle. Nyssa was like the middle child of the family that often is never shown the attention that the oldest and youngest children are afforded. In light of her family and planet being destroyed, the Doctor and Tegan were the closest things to family that Nyssa had. Tegan was like an older sister to Nyssa. Nyssa, because of her age and peaceful, idyllic life on Traken, tended to be a bit na├»ve. Tegan often had to chide her for being a bit too trusting in people. But that was the charm of Nyssa as played by Sutton. Nyssa had every reason to be angry and bitter and vengeful yet she was none of those things. She was smart and kind and generous, often taking the role of peacemaker in the many arguments between the Doctor, Tegan and Adric. Nyssa was the responsible one. When Nyssa finally departed from the Doctor’s life, she did so as the result of a courageous act of self sacrifice.
 
 
Nyssa’s final appearance was in the episode Terminus, in which the evil Black Guardian manipulates Turlough into sabotaging the Tardis, forcing it to land on a spaceship full of people suffering from the fatal, leprosy type disease known as “Lazars”, all heading for a space station at the center of the universe called Terminus. Terminus supposedly has a cure for lazars but it seems that those who run Terminus are gone and the few employees and guards that are left are the only ones getting the cure. Nyssa becomes infected with the disease but is exposed to radiation by a slave creature called the Garm. The radiation cures Nyssa but the treatment is a dangerous and unreliable one, often killing instead of curing.
 
 Meanwhile, the Doctor discovers that the remaining fuel tank that powers Terminus is becoming unstable and threatens to destroy them all. At this point, since I’m writing about Nyssa, I won’t go into too much plot detail here. I’ll just say that, long story short, the Doctor prevents the space station from exploding. However, there is still a whole bunch of lepers and no one with knowledge to help them. This is where Nyssa steps up and, once again, shows true courage. In a heartbreaking act of self sacrifice, Nyssa offers to stay behind and help synthesize a new, safe cure for the stations dying inhabitants, a project that could take years. In return, the remaining employees of Terminus Inc. will turn the space station into a hospital for the thousands of lepers who still need help. The Doctor is clearly dismayed by Nyssa’s decision and Tegan is sure that her friend will die if she stays. But Nyssa firmly tells her friends that it’s her decision and that it is an opportunity to use her special knowledge and scientific genius to help others.
 
 
It’s an amazing show of strength by the character, made all the more glaring and poignant in light of how underused the character had been throughout the series. Even the Doctor displays a deep sadness and sense of regret. We can see it in his face that he feels bad that he never spent more time with this amazing, giving, kind and brave young woman. Nyssa had had so much tragedy in her life, much of which was the result, indirectly, of having known the Doctor and by association, an enemy that had taken away her family, planet and the only life that she had ever known. We see the burden of that guilt in the Doctors face as Nyssa kisses him goodbye. It’s a scene that still packs an emotional punch when watched today.

In a 2011 interview with Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding (Tegan), the actors reflect on how they envy the current crop of companions in the new Doctor Who series. Characters like Rose Tyler, Donna Noble, Martha Jones, River Song, Amy Pond have all had great, complex stories that spend much more time exploring who they are as people. When Sutton and Fielding discuss this, you can hear a bit of sadness that writers now are spending much more time on the characters than, by comparison, was ever spent on Tegan and Nyssa. I mean, think about it. A sassy, present day stewardess whose only relative was killed and an alien princess whose family and planet was destroyed by that same killer, both women becoming friends and giving each other something to fill the void of loss that both share. This is wonderfully fertile narrative ground. Yet this relationship and particularly the character of Nyssa was hardly ever explored. It’s a testament to Nyssa as well as to the acting talents of Sarah Sutton, that Nyssa was so likable and able to shine through in spite of the limits put on the character.
 The fate of Nyssa is just one example of why stories from the Peter Davison years are some of my favorites. Beginning with Peter Davison, the Doctor was no longer infallible. He was young, he made mistakes that cost lives, mistakes that he took to heart and often had difficulty bouncing back from. The majority of his companions left under less than ideal situations. Nyssa left the doctor to spend her life on a plague ship in order help others.  Adric died.  Tegan left because she could no longer handle all the deaths that were becoming increasingly frequent in her adventures with the Doctor.  Even the Doctor's regeneration was brought about by an act of self sacrifice in order to keep yet another companion from dying. Not a difficult choice for the Doctor. The early years of the 80s were indeed sad ones for the Doctor and his companions.
 
 
 
 Now that Amy and Rory, the Doctor’s current companions, are about to leave the show, I think of companions like Nyssa who never really got their due and I’m grateful that this new era of Doctor Who has writers who really take the time to get to know the great people who travel with the Doctor. Personally, I would like to see more companions from time periods other than the present. Another “Jamie and Zoe” perhaps. I’d like to see different perspectives on morality through the lens of more varied companions. Whether the world views of those companions are formed by living in the past, or the far future, or on an alien world. How about bringing back Silurian “Madame Vastra” and her 19th century “companion” Jenny?  The Doctor has had many companions over the last nearly 50 years. Nyssa was one of those great characters that was, unfortunately, never fully realized and who was never allowed to shine as so many others were. Nyssa’s heroism, her devotion to her ideals, her compassion and kindness and her self sacrifice as interpreted by the wonderful Sarah Sutton won't be forgotten by this Doctor Who fan any time soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: SEVEN FROM TCM

So I cast my dvr net this week and caught a few oldies on Turner Classic Movies and wanted to share my thoughts. Some were good, some were not so good and some were great.






LOST ANGEL (1943). Ok, I admit it, Margaret O’Brien has the power to make me weep instantly. O’Brien is orphaned at birth and raised by a group of professors at a science institute. They love her but she‘s been very sheltered. At the age of 7 she’s a genius but completely unfamiliar with what goes on in the real world. James Craig is a cynical reporter sent to do a story on her and O’Brien immediately develops a crush on him.



She escapes the institute and makes her way to the newspaper to talk Craig into showing her more of the world. A measles outbreak at the institute keeps O’Brien from returning home so she is forced to say with Craig. O’Brien also makes friends with gangster Keenan Wynn. Wynn is falsely accused of murder and forces Craig to find the real killer “or else”. Of course Wynn’s iceberg heart is no match for O’Brien’s supernova of precocious adorability. I felt invisible fingers pulling up the corners of my mouth into a sappy smile, helpless as I watched O’Brien scold Craig for refusing to help crime lord Wynn and giggled as I watched Wynn grudgingly give in to O’Brien’s charms as he helps O’Brien with her studies. O’Brien is so cute she makes Shirley Temple look like Jack the Ripper. Naturally O’Brien’s heart (and mine) breaks as she is taken from Craig and forced to return to her family of scientists and sniffled with a runny nose of happiness when she ends up with Craig and his nightclub singer girlfriend at the end.

I’m not crying! I just have something in my eye.
 
 


THUNDERBIRD 6 (1968) Globe spanning Airship! Awesome Rocket Ship rescues! Super cool island headquarters! The daring, sexy and implacable Lady Penelope! Supermarionation! Need I say more? I’m a big fan of Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds series so I was surprised to discover that I had not seen this entry. The movie centers around the efforts of Thunderbirds engineer “Brains” to develop a new addition to the set of 5 rescue ships currently used by “International Rescue”, Thunderbird 6. Meanwhile, the New World Aircraft Corporation is about to debut Brains newest creation, Skyship One, which will go on a trip around the world. On board is super secret agent Lady Penelope, her loyal butler and sidekick Parker, Thunderbird Alan and girlfriend/pilot Tin-Tin. But their vacation is interrupted by the villainous agents of White Ghost! Good, clean, nostalgic fun. Yeah, it’s a little slow and the voice acting is hilariously bad but it’s still fun to watch this group of good hearted puppets try to save the world. 

 


THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER(1945). This was a pretty fun little mystery. Let me say that these movies aren't the best movies ever made. But for an adaptation of a 40 minute radio show mystery, they're not bad. Add RD to the formula, and you have something very watchable. The title character is the Rod Serling/crypt keeper type narrator, only seen as a shadow in the films or a physical person hiding in the shadows. The Whistler introduces us to Richard Dix. As the film opens, Dix is walking down the street, intense but distracted enough to be hit by a car as he crosses the street. The accident leaves him with amnesia. All he has to solve the mystery of who he is are some seemingly innocuously items in his pockets. An expensive lighter, a doctors prescription and a receipt for the delivery of a cake.  He gets a little help from a perky blonde amateur fortune teller (Janis Carter) who reads the cards for Dix and sees death in 24 hours.  However, Carter soon realizes that Dix is more than just a nice guy with problems who is doomed to die. Those innocuous items along with the disturbing amount of small animals that end up dead after crossing Dix's path, lead Carter to discover that Dix is a psychotic killer who has recently escaped from a mental institution and has plans to send a poison filled birthday cake to the judge who sent him there. 

 
I like these small films based on radio shows. They often seem to have scripts that are taken directly from radio due to a more exposition driven narrative rather than a visual one. This one moved along quickly and was pretty easy to figure out the mystery. The appeal here is Dix who slowly changes from a nice guy to a psycho in a rather fascinating and subtle fashion. Dix can change his face in such a subtle way to change from kindness to downright scary. Dix was in all but one of the Whistler film series. They’re being shown in chronological order every Saturday morning on TCM.
 
 
Meanwhile, over in the WW2 propaganda department, we have Edward Dmytryk's BEHIND THE RISING SUN(1943). The story is about a young Japanese man (Tom Neal) from a prominent family who has become Americanized while at school in the US but who changes into an absolute monster after becoming a Japanese soldier who is forced to partake in the horrors of Nanking. The movie is narrated by the mans father (J Carroll Naish). Naish goes through the reverse of what happens to his son. While Neal slowly loses his soul, Naish’s is slowly restored. As the film opens, Naish goes on and on about the power of Japan and their inevitable domination of the world like a villain from a James Bond movie. Over time he changes his tune as friends of his are labeled enemies of the country, tortured and executed. Some of these friends are an American spy, a Russian Spy, a businessman, an American journalist and a baseball player.
 
Highlights of the movie are the rather graphic for their time Nanking scenes. The most shocking moment shows a soldier tossing a baby up in the air as he prepares to catch the child with his bayonet(not shown of course). The fact is, if you know anything about Nanking then you know that this was probably the most tame thing they could show and still make the point.

There's a nice romantic subplot about the Journalist (Gloria Holden) who is about to leave the circle of friends to work in a dangerous area of the country and who fears she will soon die and the businessman (Don Douglas) who she loves and proposes to. The two, along with all their friends, end up being held and tortured in a Japanese prison until an American air strike bombs the prison, leading to their escape.
 
My favorite moment had to be the showdown between Robert Ryan as a baseball pro turned boxer in order to take on Kung Fu master Mike Mazurki in one of the longest and (unintentionally) funniest fight scene I've ever watched on film, nearly rivaling the now classic fight scene in John Carpenter's THEY LIVE. The film is interesting in that it's the only movie I know of from that time period that tackles the subject of Nanking. That said, it's not that well made. Lots of bad acting, bad make-up jobs, bad dialogue, sloppy editing. But it does have it's moments, unintentionally funny though some of them may be.
 


SEVEN MILES FROM ALCATRAZ (1942) was another low budget Dmytryk propaganda vehicle. James Craig and his pal escape Alcatraz FAR too easily. In fact, Dmytryk seems to purposely avoid drawing attention from his "message" with a complex escape as Craig tells the audience in his narration that escaping from Alcatraz is so complicated that it's best if he not waste the audience’s time by telling them how he did it! The two prisoners swim to some conveniently accessible driftwood and float to a lighthouse in which lives Bonita "Nancy Drew" Granville, her dad and a friend of the family. After some resistance, Craig and his pal manage to take them all captive. There's a lot of discussion between Craig and Granville's father about the threat of Nazism. But Craig is a cynic who just doesn't care. That is until three German spies turn up at the lighthouse to meet a "friend" who will take them to their submarine rendezvous. How a Nazi sub gets into San Francisco Bay unseen is obviously not elaborated upon. Turns out that the family friend of Granville is really a dirty traitor. The Germans try to seduce Craig and his pal with a Sub ride to freedom and lots of money. But Craig finally sees the light and he and Granville capture them all. Craig turns himself in but it's hinted that his patriotism will lead to some subtraction of time from his sentence.

This one was downright horrible. I don't know what Dmytryk's problem is here but you would never know that this was the guy who gave us Murder My Sweet. This isn't even as good as the worst entry in Granvilles Nancy Drew series. Nor is it as well written or acted.


 


The highlight has to be 1945’s CONFIDENTIAL AGENT, based on the Graham Greene novel and sporting some lovely James Wong Howe photography. Charles Boyer is a former concert pianist turned “confidential agent” for the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. He’s fighting off all sorts of vile Fascists in order to keep them from getting their hands on British coal. Even his own contacts (Peter Lorre, Katina Paxinou) have been bought off and are intent on killing him. His only allies are a 14 year old hotel maid (Wanda Hendrix) and a bratty drunk with serious daddy issues (Lauren Bacall).

 


Boyer doesn’t fare too well in his mission. He gets beat up, charged by police with just about everything under the sun and framed for murder. It seems the Fascists are unstoppable. This is a good role for Boyer who isn’t quite his usual unflappable self here. He plays a man who is so battle worn that he hardly resembles his own passport photo. He’s also still stinging from the loss of his wife and daughter, killed by Fascists. He plays the part of a cautious, worried man who definitely does not underestimate the enemy and who is slowly losing his faith in his fellow man. Yet he faces his foes with the courage of a man who has accepted that he will probably die for the cause. As Bacall falls for both Boyer and his cause, she starts to see her self respect restored and her entitlement melt away. Katina Paxinou is terrific as the monstrous villain whose death you cant help but delight in. Lorre is pretty much Lorre. The film builds up a nice suspense as we see Boyer’s (and our) frustration build and build as the fascists keep him and victory at arms length. This makes the pay off at the end even more rewarding.

 


I think I like John Huston’s HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON even more than his film African Queen. The two are similar in theme. A tough guy teamed up with a woman of God who find themselves facing off against representatives of one of the Axis powers. I think what works for me in this film that didn’t in African Queen is that Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum have much better and much more believable chemistry than did Bogart and Hepburn.

 


Shipwrecked Mitchum washes up on the shore of a south pacific island whose only inhabitant is a young and attractive nun played by Kerr. I loved watching Mitchum’s orphan turned Marine interact with the innocent but refined Kerr. These roles fit the characters like a glove. I also enjoyed the sexual tension as Mitchum slowly falls in love with the seemingly oblivious Kerr. I delighted in watching Mitchum’s hopes rise as Kerr confides that she hasn’t yet taken her final vows as well as the hurt on his face as Kerr must painfully reject his proposal of marriage as she tries in vain to explain her love and dedication to God.

 


Kerr is simply a joy in this. She glows with happiness as she wakes up to Mitchum’s gift of a hand carved comb wrapped in leafs and flowers. The movie has a wonderfully peaceful quality to it. There is no intrusive musical score. There are moments of music that highlight certain scenes. But for the most part, it’s a quiet film that focuses on these two terrific characters. It’s been about 20 years since I last watched this movie. I recently watched the equally entertaining Mitchum/Kerr film The Sundowners. As in Heaven Knows, Sundowners shows that the chemistry between Kerr and Mitchum was no fluke. These two are one of the most criminally underrated, romantic screen pairings of the classic film era.