Scott at 15 (!)

Yesterday was Scott’s birthday, incredibly placing him halfway through his teen years.

He picked out an acoustic guitar that looks and sounds terrific and better yet gives him one to play other than mine. Or so I thought: now he’s got mine to play downstairs and his upstairs. Altogether that makes an acoustic and two electrics (with two amps) in his arsenal, with my acoustic in reserve and somewhere around the house an old folk guitar (though an admittedly lame one). Plus Grandma gave him a mandolin and Granny and Grandaddy gave him a 17-key Kalimba Marimba (with an electric pickup so he can plug it into his amps!). Already in his collection were an electronic keyboard, a melodica and the Reuter family accordion on loan from a cousin. And our upright piano, where it all started.

In case you couldn’t tell, he’s kind of into music. Sometimes I confess I take it for granted that there’s always music in the house and I just tune it out, but I know the day will come when it’s quiet again and I’ll be wishing I still heard those snippets of Pink Floyd, Bowie, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine. If only I could talk him into playing more Beatles. I’ve made the mistake of expressing my distaste for certain tunes, like Wham’s “Last Christmas” (or pretty much Wham’s anything) and the Eagle’s “Hotel California,” which plays so often on Richmond radio that I feel like I’m stuck in a remake of “Groundhog Day.” So whenever Scott sees or hears me coming, he’s sure to stop whatever he’s playing to regale me with one of those songs I hate most. He thinks I don’t know he’s doing it on purpose.

Once in the car I mused aloud how it was interesting that certain chords made the human brain feel good and others were unsettling or jarring, and wondered why. Scott piped up and explained it had to do with frequency ratios and went into which ones worked best. I thought I was asking a rhetorical question. Another time we were raking leaves in the back yard and he stopped under a set of wind chimes. I figured he was just shirking, but then he said, “These are on the pentatonic scale, so whatever random order they strike in, it still sounds good. Otherwise it’d be awful half the time.” Musical mind on that one, for sure.

Scott’s a sweet kid who’s always eager to help out where he can, and it’s joy to have him around. In fact, we hit the jackpot three times in the “kid lottery,” and being a dad is still the coolest job I’ve ever had.

Happy birthday, Scott. Keep on rockin’ in the new year.

Superman, 2020

I’ve always been interested in the ways comic books imagined the future, especially when I was living in the “future” in question.  As a kid, I read a reprint of an old Captain Marvel (“Shazam” variety) tale that featured a time traveler from the distant era of 1977.  It was almost 1977 when I read it, and nobody I knew had a time machine.

In 1980, Superman #354 introduced a backup feature called “Superman 2020,” positing what the future might bring for the Superman family 50 years into the future.  This was one of several such features introduced in hopes of generating reader interest in a time when Superman comics were increasingly viewed as old-fashioned and dull by most of fandom.  Another “let’s try anything” back-up feature followed the adventures of a married Clark Kent and Lois Lane on Earth-2, while another examined what would have happened if the infant Superman had landed in Gotham City to become “Bruce Wayne,” not “Clark Kent.”  In the case of “Superman 2020,” we see what would happen if Superman aged in real time, had a son and then a grandson, who operated in the titular year.  In the end, the answer to all three “what-if” scenarios was that, ultimately, a Superman story is pretty much a Superman story regardless of the details.  All Superman stories boiled down to how to creatively use super-powers to combat the challenge of the month, be it earthly criminals, alien invaders, scientific threats or natural or man-made disasters.  At story’s end, the varying iterations of Superman might go home to a bachelor apartment, to the missus, to Wayne Manor, or to a futuristic floating city depending on which version’s in play, but aside from those variations, they’re all the same stories about the same guy doing the same things.

That said, it’s always interesting seeing what comics creators thought life would be like in 2020.  For starters, according to writer Cary Bates and artist Curt Swan, the entire East Coast of the United States would be one sprawling metropolitan entity:

s2020-megalopolis

I understand the implied commentary on “urban sprawl,” but it’s hard to imagine something like this working.  All those absorbed cities — and a lot of smaller ones in between — would have to agree to a shared government, which means a lot of mayors, councilmen, boards, planners, etc would have to give up their positions and/or influence.  And think of all the ball teams that would have to be retired! But anyway, it’s an interesting concept.

Even with cities this size, there’s still not enough room for everyone in 2020 given the population explosion, so the city of New Metropolis has been constructed, snow-globe style, in Earth orbit.

s2020-NewMet

Again, lots of questions about how this could work physically as well as politically (how would a foreign government feel about an American city passing overhead from time to time?) but the interesting take-away is that someone in 1980 could think, even in a comic book story, that we’d progress this far scientifically in just 50 years.  We sure dropped the ball on that.  I mean, iPads and Bluetooth headsets are cool and all, but it’s remarkable how our former daydreams of massive-scale engineering achievements have been surrendered in favor of advances in personalized technology that fits in our pockets.  We don’t get a big bubble over a floating city, but we do get lots of metaphorical little bubbles around each of us, shutting us out from our real-world surroundings, and each other. 

Anyway, the hero of our story is Kalel Kent, or at least he goes by that name for about a page and a half.  For reasons that remain unclear, Kalel decides to kill off his “secret identity” so he can adopt a series of new ones.  Step one is to get himself declared legally dead by crashing his “Vexor” flying car (because it’s 2020) into the side of a cliff.

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Here we see a time-honored trope of comic book logic: vehicle crashes and burns, someone says “No one could have survived that crash,” and that’s good enough for a death certificate.  Never mind that no body is found.

Also, it’s interesting that for all the starry-eyed prognostications of technological development, no one foresees the future’s higher standards for establishing, documenting and verifying proof of identity.  Kalel is confident he can just make up a new name and start a new career whenever he wants, with no birth certificate, proof of citizenship, diplomas, degrees, certifications, tax records, you name it.  And indeed that’s just what he does for the rest of the series.  In the comic book year of 2020, creating a new identity is as simple as it was in 1400.

You also have to wonder why a revolving door of secret IDs would be a good idea, and really there is no reason whatsoever within the logic of the story.  The reason is rooted in OUR world, where changing things up every couple of months frees writers — theoretically — from worrying about issues of continuity or “sameness”, and the cast of supporting characters, workplaces, etc can change the moment they start to feel stale.  Except, again, a Superman story is a Superman story, and it doesn’t matter much whether he slips away to go on a mission from his job as a reporter, a cab driver, a mailman or a schoolteacher, as this series will eventually bear out.

As you’ll note from the image above, the Superman of 2020 is missing the famous “S” logo on his chest.  That’s because it’s passed down in a formal ceremony from generation to generation, and today’s the day he’s due to get his “badge” from Pa and Grandpa Superman.

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I love that “21st century slang” note from the editor.  Shouldn’t slang be more succinct, or at least catchier, than the verbiage it replaces?

Elsewhere, we see that 50 years of progress has not eliminated evil and small-mindedness from society, as we witness a gathering of “racial purity” zealots in a sort of “Make Earth Great Again” rally:

s2020-MEGA

This group tricks the young Superman (referred to here as “Superman III”, because nobody knows yet how bad the movie will be) into following a hologram of his father and grandfather, whereupon he’s trapped in a metallic cube.  In time he will be able to smash his way out, but in so doing, he’ll trigger an explosion that destroys New Metropolis, accomplishing the twin goals of avoiding possible alien contact and besmirching the “Superman” family brand.

The xenophobic “Purists” group adopts a none-too-subtle variation on a Nazi swastika as their symbol, but interestingly their salute rather presciently suggests the controversial “OK” hand gesture that’s become associated with racist ideology in the real 2020.

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Superman III figures out the plot, emits a supersonic whistle that alerts his dad and grandfather, and then proceeds to hammer away at his cube-shaped trap to generate a morse code message about the hidden bomb in New Metropolis.  His elders hear and decipher this message, find the bomb and remove it, so when Superman III escapes the cube, the city is not destroyed.  You know, the usual perfectly feasible comic book stuff.

s2020-victory

With that settled, the ceremony proceeds as scheduled and Superman III takes his rightful place as a defender of the Earth.

The feature will return for a handful of additional installments, each finding Superman III in a new identity and solving new problems, but again aside from the futuristic cityscapes and fashions, there’s not much to differentiate this strip from “regular” Superman, so it never really picks up any momentum.  Almost immediately Bates and Swan are gone as the strip is handed off to (in my opinion) lesser lights like Bob Rozakis and Alex Saviuk.  Basically, it never feels like more than “filler.”

If anything, I’d rate it even lower than the “Married Superman” or “Bruce Wayne Superman” backup strips because here, there are three Supermen, more or less identical aside from grey hair and wrinkles.  It can’t help but diminish the stature of your hero to make him just one of three, and the least experienced and powerful of the three, at that.  Even when the elder Supermen aren’t featured in a tale, you always know they’re around somewhere to take up the slack if this kid fails.

So if I could tell my 1980 self how close this story came to predicting 2020, I’d have to say not very close on the good stuff (floating cities and flying cars) and too close on the bad stuff (racist movements and neo-fascism).  Probably younger me would be more fascinated to learn I can now read and discuss this story through a computing device connected to the rest of the world.

2020

I was finally coming to grips with the fact that I’m living in the 21st (!) century and now here we are in the previously inconceivable year of 2020.  I mean seriously, doesn’t “2020” sound like a subtitle at the beginning of a sci-fi movie? Arguably, we are several years into a post-apocalyptic dystopia at this point, so it’s not like it totally came out of nowhere, but still, that number is nuts.


2020-750

Or maybe it’s just an age thing.  I wonder how my grandparents felt when the calendar rolled over to 1970, or 1980, considering they’d been around for the Great Depression and World War II?  My Dad’s dad was born two years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kittyhawk, and lived to see men land on the Moon.  Surely towards the end of their lives, they thought the numbers were getting just as far-fetched as I find 2020.

The weird thing is, I remember being in the car on New Year’s Eve, 1969, on the way home from visiting relatives, and the announcer on the radio was wondering what surprises we had in store for us in 1970.  That means that at this point, I’ve lived in parts of SIX decades.  That’s pretty much the textbook definition of “sobering.”

Anyway, I drew a doodle on the fridge to kick the year off:

2020

 

I seem to have a lot of trouble coming up with stuff to post here, while at the same time I’m always doodling something or other, so this year I hope to share my drawings, good and bad, warts and all, just so there’s some content for a change.

 

 

 

One Giant Leap for Hologramkind

In what’s easily 2019’s coolest use of AV technology, the Smithsonian is projecting a giant holograph of a Saturn V rocket onto the Washington Monument this week; on Friday and Saturday it’ll come to life and recreate the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969.  Wish I could be there to see it (especially since I’ll be at Boy Scout summer camp instead!) but it’s awesome that they’re doing it at all.  And kind of appropriate as Gen. Michael Collins was both the Command Module pilot for Apollo 11 and later the director of the National Air and Space Museum.

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I don’t have a lot more to say about the first moon landing that I didn’t already say in my 40th anniversary post, except that in the intervening 10 years (!) we’ve seen the death of Neil Armstrong, the end of the Space Shuttle program and more promises for the human exploration of space that may or may not ever come to pass.  Hopefully we have some awesome adventures in space ahead of us, but in the meantime it’s worth pausing to remember what we’re capable of doing at our best.

Moonraker at 40

You’ve doubtless heard this summer marks a major anniversary of mankind’s greatest adventure in space.  That’s right, it’s been 40 years since the theatrical release of the James Bond film, Moonraker.

In 1979, this celluloid masterpiece landed amid a wasteland of lackluster films like Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Alien, The China Syndrome, Breaking Away and Being There to deliver two breathless hours of what producer Cubby Broccoli called “not science fiction, but science fact.” For instance, there’s the little-known scientific fact that human beings can fall from airplanes onto circus tents without injury, or the even lesser known fact that the US government maintains a highly trained force of Space Marines, just in case a rival power ever decides to stage a skirmish in Earth orbit using handheld weapons.

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Marking Roger Moore’s fourth mission as 007, Moonraker launched in the UK on June 26 and splashed down in the States three days later.  I’m not sure how long after that I climbed into a theater seat to watch it, but it couldn’t have been long.  At that point I was at the ultimate peak of my Bond fandom, having devoured Ian Fleming’s novels and rejoiced whenever a vintage Bond film aired on the ABC Sunday Night Movie (which wasn’t nearly often enough).  It’s been said, somewhere, that 14 is the optimum age to be a Bond fan, and while I can’t say if that’s true for the world at large, it certainly was in my case.   For me, the summer of ’79 was all about Bond: Moonraker ads on the TV, bubblegum cards and magazines at the convenience store and the soundtrack album on my stereo.

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I wasn’t alone, either: the film did phenomenal box office in ’79, becoming the biggest money-maker in the franchise’s history to that point and holding the record for a whopping 16 years until dethroned by Goldeneye.  Critics were divided — nothing new for Bonds — but many of them loved it, with some rating it second only to Goldfinger.  Suffice to say the tables turned in the years that followed, with self-appointed Bond “historians” usually denigrating the entire enterprise as a childish, idiotic parody of everything a James Bond movie is supposed to be.  In time, their word would become gospel, and Moonraker took on the mantle of “series low point.”

However, the pendulum of opinion has a way of swinging back again if you live long enough, and the film has come in for a lot of love in recent years.  Partly that could be due to newfound affection for the late great Roger Moore, partly it could be a certain nostalgia for “silly” Bonds after the relentlessly grim Daniel Craig era or it could just be that after all this time we can see the film for what it was: harmless fun.  In 1979, Bond purists saw it not just as a bad movie, but as a disastrous wrong turn for the series that, given its financial success, could have defined the tone of Bonds for years to follow.  As it turns out, four decades later we can see it as just another temporary excursion down an interesting side road.

There’s no denying Moonraker gave us some cringe-worthy moments, like the infamous scene where Bond, in Venice, converts his gondola into a hovercraft and drives it through astonished crowds in St Mark’s Square, pretty effectively torpedoing the very notion of a “secret” agent. And just in case there was any danger of the humor here coming off as too subtle, there’s an insert of a pigeon doing a startled double-take in disbelief.

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Throughout the film, the seemingly invulnerable villain Jaws plays Wile E Coyote to Bond’s Roadrunner, tumbling from airplanes and mountains and waterfalls to seemingly certain death, only to emerge unscathed, brushing himself off to resume the chase…until he finds true love and defects to the side of right and virtue.  And of course, we cap everything off with armies of astronauts shooting lasers at each other while floating  in Earth orbit.  So yeah, it’s not exactly cinema verite.

And yet at the same time, the film has some very suspenseful — and decidedly dark — moments.  The scene where Bond is nearly crushed to paste in a centrifuge offers a rare dose of genuine suspense for this stage of the series, and at one point an ally is chased down and killed by dogs in a scene that’s somehow terrifying and beautiful all at once.

From a technical standpoint, Moonraker remains impressive.  For John Barry, easily the best composer to work on the series, the score marks a turning point between his bombastic, brass-heavy works in the earlier Bonds and the more lush, string-heavy arrangements he’d bring to films like Out of Africa, Somewhere in Time and Body Heat.  Sir Ken Adams’ sets, always phenomenal, are at their biggest and most impressive here, from villain Drax’s “mission control” hidden in a South American pyramid to his orbiting space station.  Derek Meddings’ model work, building on years of experience gained on shows like Thunderbirds and UFO, makes the space shuttle scenes totally convincing (the launch of the real-life shuttle ended up being delayed until a few years later, but Medding’s faux launches still look convincing even after we’ve seen the real thing).  Working together, they take a seemingly ridiculous notion — James Bond in space — and make it almost seem plausible.

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Probably my single favorite promotional art from a series filled with great promotional art is Daniel Gouzee’s teaser poster, showing Roger Moore as Bond orbiting Earth in a space suit in the traditional gun-across-the-chest pose.  Yes, there’s the troublesome matter of Bond going helmet-less in the vacuum of space, but in a way it only adds to the wacky charm of the whole enterprise.  I was lucky enough to score a clean, unfolded version of this poster for a song in the early days of eBay, and it occupies a place of honor on my media room wall.

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Roger himself is at the top of his game here, suave and cool, utterly unflappable and impossibly handsome.  At the halfway point in his tenure as Bond, he’s relaxed and at ease throughout.  If Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (!) and Michael Lonsdale as Drax aren’t the best Bond girl and villain in the series, they’re also far from the worst.  The “office team” is intact one last time, with Bernard Lee making his last appearance as M before his unfortunate demise.

Anyway, I couldn’t let the anniversary of this epic theater-going experience pass without mention.  Whatever its weaknesses, this was the last of the truly BIG Bonds, with a massive supervillain lair, opulent locations in glorious widescreen vistas, over-the-top stuntwork and the whole nine yards.  The next film, For Your Eyes Only, would deliberately downscale everything in a bid to return to more serious fare (and to save money, no doubt).  The films that followed, whether with Moore or his three successors — and despite ballooning budgets — never felt as grandiose again.

I used to say the Bond films were to moviegoers what Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had been to turn-of-the-century audiences: Every couple of years, and with much fanfare, the big show would roll into sleepy small towns like mine and present sights and sounds we could never see otherwise; a wild parade of larger-than-life characters doing extraordinary things against a fantastic landscape that never really existed, but should have.  It was loud and flashy and exciting with a charismatic ringmaster at center stage as our host and guide. I still enjoy the ongoing Bond series for all sorts of reasons, but that kind of thrill left the proceedings a long time ago, for me.  That’s why as nutty and stupid as it can be in spots, I’ll always come back to enjoy Moonraker, from its amazing pre-credits fight shot in high-altitude freefall to the end credits, which appropriately enough roll past to a disco tune.

This then is my tip of the EVA helmet to Moonraker on its 40th, and to Cubby Broccoli, Lewis Gilbert, Ken Adam, Roger Moore, John Barry, Derek Meddings, Maurice Binder, Richard Kiel, Bob Simmons, Richard Graydon, Desmond Llewelyn, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee and all the other participants who’ve taken that last giant leap into the Great Beyond.