Tor.com content by

Keith DeCandido

Fiction and Excerpts [3]
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Fiction and Excerpts [3]

’38 Special—The Rocketeer and The Phantom

The Rocketeer was created in 1982 by the late Dave Stevens as a tribute to Depression-era movie serials and comic strips and such. Stevens had an affinity for the pop culture of the first half of the 20th century, having made a career of creating art in the style of that bygone era. Besides The Rocketeer, his best-known works were his illustrations of pinup model Bettie Page (who was also a supporting character in The Rocketeer).

The Phantom was created in 1936 by the late Lee Falk (who continued to write and draw The Phantom comic strip until his death in 1999 at the age of 87), and was the very type of adventure story that Stevens was nostalgic for and trying to re-create with his Rocketeer character.

Both characters were adapted into live-action movies in the 1990s that took place in 1938 and would prove to be disappointments at the box office.

[When you borrow something, you don’t tell nobody, they call that stealing.]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Everybody comes home” — Star Trek Discovery’s “Into the Forest I Go”

And so Discovery reaches its “mid-season finale,” a recent phenomenon of television to make sure that people tune in for the last episode before a break, and also to reassure folks that yes, we’ll be back in a few months, don’t go away and never come back, pretty please. While it’s true you never saw this in the old days, said old days involved somewhere between three and ten sources of new programming at most. Now there’s hundreds. One can’t really blame the producers for being gun-shy about losing viewers because they took a few weeks off.

Anyhow, the storyline comes full circle, putting Burnham back on the bridge of the ship of the dead, with a chance at redemption for getting her captain killed. And it’s quite a ride.

[No other Federation vessel would have a chance of pulling this off.]

“God’s gonna sit this one out” — The Punisher (1989), The Punisher (2004), and Punisher: War Zone

The Punisher first appeared in the comics in 1974 in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. He showed up as a guest star in many comics over the next twelve years before getting a miniseries by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck in 1986 which was a huge hit. That led to a slew of Punisher comic books, particularly in the late 1980s and 1990s when the more violent heroes (see also Wolverine and Ghost Rider and Lobo) were becoming more popular.

That popularity also led to a movie with Dolph Lundgren in 1989 that was not much of a hit and barely got released. When superhero movies took off in the early 2000s, another shot was taken with Thomas Jane in 2004, and then another with Ray Stevenson in 2008.

[If you’re guilty, you’re dead…]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

If You Want Peace, Prepare for War — Star Trek Discovery’s “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

Discovery barrels toward its slightly-more-than-midway point, as this eighth episode moves things forward and sets up for the ninth, which will also be the “fall finale” before we get a hiatus during which lots of people will try CBS All Access for a trial period and binge the nine episodes.

The episode has a lot of story ground to cover, and it does so in a particularly impressive fashion, moving both the Federation and Klingon plots forward. We get strong moments for pretty much the entire cast, but most notably for Saru, who has been a bit underused lately. “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” gives Doug Jones a chance to shine.

[There will be time to grieve. This is not that time.]

“Cowabunga!” — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been a phenomenon so long that probably nobody remembers that they started out as a parody of Marvel Comics of the 1980s, particularly those by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.

Two of the biggest things in comics in the 1980s were teenage mutants (as seen in The X-Men and The New Mutants, written by Claremont) and ninjas (as seen in Daredevil and the Wolverine and Elektra miniseries, written and/or drawn by Miller). Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created teenage mutants and also made them ninjas, and also turtles, and did them as a fairly straight black-and-white parody. (Daredevil is the primary source of parody here, as Splinter is a riff on DD’s mentor Stick, and the Foot is a play on the Hand. This has actually come full circle as a parody, since the Hand has become a major villain in Marvel’s various Netflix series.)

They became a huge multimedia hit, turned into a popular cartoon in 1987 and a series of live-action feature films in the 1990s.

[“Bossanova!” “Bossanova?” “Chevy Nova?”]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Mime from Hell — The Crow, The Crow: City of Angels, The Crow: Salvation, and The Crow: Wicked Prayer

James O’Barr’s black-and-white comic book The Crow was one of the great success stories of the indie comics market of the 1980s and 1990s. A touchstone for Goth culture, the four-part miniseries—originally written as a way for O’Barr to work through the death of his girlfriend at the hands of a drunk driver—was a massive hit for Caliber Comics, and it spawned an impressive collection of spinoffs in comics, prose, and screen form.

The comics continued to be published by a variety of publishers, most recently IDW, while a few novels and a short story anthology were also put out. When the film rights were sold, Alex Proyas, who had directed many music videos, shorts, and an independent science fiction feature, was tapped to direct.

The first film gained a particular notoriety due to its star, Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee), dying during filming. (His father also died while making a film, though the elder Lee died of a cerebral edema.) With only three days of filming left, Lee was shot by an improperly maintained prop gun loaded with blanks.

[That’s a blue sun!]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Tough Mudder — Star Trek Discovery’s “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

It’s always dangerous to riff on a popular story you’ve already done. You do a thing, it’s nifty, and you think, “We should do that again.” Deep Space Nine does “Necessary Evil” and it’s brilliant, so they try to do it again with “Things Past,” and it doesn’t quite come together as well. The Next Generation does “The Inner Light,” and it’s a massive hit, and several Trek shows take another shot at something “Inner Light”-ish and it can’t light a candle. “Cause and Effect” was a great TNG episode, a brilliant use of the five-act structure by Brannon Braga and elegantly directed by Jonathan Frakes. Braga himself riffed on it later on in TNG‘s “Timescape,” which wasn’t anywhere near as good, though it was still a perfectly good episode.

Discovery’s “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is a total riff on “Cause and Effect” (and also on Groundhog Day), and it’s not anywhere near as good. But it still works as an episode, mostly because the focus remains squarely on our main character.

[I’m kind of going through a musician phase right now…]

First Draft of the MCU — The Incredible Hulk Returns, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and The Death of the Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk had a respectable five-year run on television. It remained an iconic part of popular culture, from “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” taking root in the popular consciousness to a hilarious offhand reference to the show in The Usual Suspects.

Six years after its cancellation by CBS, New World picked up the rights to the show and sold it to NBC. New World owned Marvel at the time, and they wanted to use their only real TV success as a springboard to try to launch other heroes into television.

[Maybe I belong in a cage.]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Good Retcons and Bad B-Plots — Star Trek Discovery’s “Lethe”

One of the most challenging things one can do when creating serial narrative is retroactive continuity, or retcon: filling in a gap or establishing something about a character or situation that was previously unknown.

When done properly, it can bring an entire character into focus. (To use a comic book example, when Magneto was established as a Holocaust survivor.) When done improperly, of course, it can be disastrous. (To use another comic book example, establishing that Norman Osborn raped Gwen Stacey, and she mothered children from that.)

Star Trek has, over five decades, engaged in such retcons any number of times (my three favorites are establishing that Worf accidentally killed someone as a teenager, that Bashir was genetically enhanced, and that Troi had a baby sister who died), and in “Lethe” we have one of their most successful.

[“Computer, add salsa.”]

“This is so f***ing cool!” — Star Trek Discovery‘s “Choose Your Pain”

In 1966, Star Trek put a black woman and an Asian man on the bridge, and made them senior officers, a year later adding a Russian man to the mix. In an era of civil rights unrest, war in southeast Asia, and the ongoing cold war with the Soviet Union, showing those three working together with the white folks (not to mention the pointy-eared alien) was huge.

In 1993, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine put a black man at the top of the ensemble, and had an Arab doctor. The former was so radical that it had rarely been seen before or since, and the latter is also vanishingly rare.

And now, in 2017, Star Trek Discovery finally gives us a main character on a Trek TV show who is not heterosexual.

[I reiterate—ouch!]

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” — The Incredible Hulk (1977) and The Return of the Incredible Hulk

In 1977, Universal Television had the rights to several different Marvel Comics characters, and Kenneth Johnson was given the opportunity to develop one of them. Johnson had come to prominence as a writer/producer on The Six Million Dollar Man, and he created the character of Jaime Somers, who was later spun off into her own series, The Bionic Woman, for which Johnson was the show-runner.

Inspired in part by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Johnson decided to take on the Hulk.

[Within each of us, ofttimes, there dwells a mighty and raging fury.]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

The Spores Must Flow — Star Trek Discovery’s “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”

One of the issues I have with the full-season-story model of television is that all too often the creation of a good one-hour episode gets lost in the shuffle. Everyone’s so focused on the big story arc that they forget that they have 42 minutes to tell a single story, and you wind up getting an unsatisfying hour of TV watching on its own. Sometimes this works. The Wire, for example, did a great job of telling one big dozen-episode story each season. But in general, the sweet spot is to find a balance, treating each episode as a single story that’s part of a greater whole. Breaking Bad and its current prequel Better Call Saul accomplish this masterfully.

I have no idea if Star Trek Discovery will do this well over the long haul, but I’m given great hope by “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” because it’s a damn fine episode that tells a very good—and a very Star Trek—story in its hour while continuing the seasonal arc along.

[“The phaser will only piss him off.” “Think of it as a placebo for my skepticism.”]

“Chicks dig the car” — Batman Forever and Batman & Robin

While Batman was a huge hit in the summer of 1989—against some stiff competition, including Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Dead Poets Society, Back to the Future Part II, Ghostbusters II, and The Little Mermaid, among others—Batman Returns was considered a box office disappointment, grossing considerably less. Warner Bros. shook things up, asking Tim Burton to step aside (though he still produced the next film) and assigning Joel Schumacher to take over the directorial reins.

Where Burton was at least partly inspired by the darker Batman comics of the 1970s and 1980s, Schumacher went back to the 1950s comics and the 1960s TV show for inspiration, eschewing the dark knight and embracing the caped crusader.

[“She knows who we are. Guess we’ll have to kill her.” “Yup. We’ll kill her later, we have work to do.”]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“You helped start a war, don’t you want to help me end it?” — Star Trek Discovery’s “Context is for Kings”

By the time I got to the end of “Context is for Kings,” I turned to my wife and said, “This should’ve been the first episode they aired.” It’s the perfect pilot: the bulk of the main cast is introduced, we see the ship for which the show is named, we know that we’re in a war and that Burnham is responsible. I’m not usually the biggest fan of flashbacks, but the general awkwardness and flaws in the two-part premiere would’ve been much easier to take as the fourth or fifth episode, filling in the gaps of what gets mentioned in the script for what is instead the third episode. We get more than enough to be intriguing, and I’m a lot more excited about the show now than I was a week ago.

This is frustrating only because we had to wait a week for it. I’ve been an editor for my entire adult life, going back to college, in fact, and the most common editorial note I have ever given in the three decades I’ve been doing this has been: “lop off the beginning, the story actually starts on page 10 (or wherever).” So often—and as a writer, I’ve done this, too—the first chapter of the book, the first few pages of the story, are a waste of time that spin wheels and provide exposition, while the actual story starts later.

“Context is for Kings” is where Discovery’s story starts.

[You were always a good officer. Until you weren’t.]

“Nice Outfit!” — Batman (1989) and Batman Returns

In the twenty years between the cancellation of the Adam West Batman TV series and the release of the Michael Keaton Batman movie, there was a significant backlash against the campy, goofy interpretation of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego. In the comics, creators such as Denny O’Neil & Neal Adams and Steve Englehart & Marshall Rogers returned Batman to his noir roots, emphasizing the character’s status as a creature of the night who strikes fear into the hearts of evil-doers.

This culminated in Frank Miller & Klaus Janson’s 1986 four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, which chronicled an alternate future of an aging Batman coming out of retirement to continue his fight. A year later, Miller would then join David Mazzucchelli to re-tell Batman’s earliest days in Batman: Year One, a story arc in issues #404-407 of Batman’s monthly title. In both cases, the character was taken to even darker extremes, as far from West’s campy Caped Crusader as possible.

In the wake of this renaissance, Tim Burton was tapped to provide his own interpretation of Batman.

[You didn’t invite me, so I crashed!]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch