Friday, August 31, 2007

Stan Ain't My Man

My dad once told me that if you were to cut out an entire storyline of the newspaper comic strip "The Amazing Spider-Man," the only Spider-Man serial still written by co-creator Stan Lee, and read all of the strips in succession, they would be absolutely unreadable.

Nonsense, I thought to myself; this is Stan Lee we're talking about! The man whose imagination gave birth to an entire universe of colorful characters! .

Yesterday, I bought a copy of The Last Fantastic Four story, the latest thing Lee's written for Marvel Comics, and holy crap, my dad was right.

In a nutshell, it's about a virtually omnipotent race of beings that decides the human race's time is up because of all of humanity's evil, and how the Fantastic Four figures out how to stop them. That's pretty much it. It doesn't merit much of a review, because in truth, with the exception of John Romita Jr.'s sterling art, it's one of the worst comic books I've had the misfortune of ever reading. From the plot to the dialogue to the ultimate resolution of the story, the whole thing is a disaster.

The painful part is that Lee's old writing still holds up pretty well, dated dialogue aside. Having re-read the tattered 1966 issue of Fantastic Four I inherited from my uncle, I can say for sure that back then, Lee knew how to tell a story with some flair. The dialogue isn't even that distracting.

The problem between then and now is that Lee has become something of an icon; he used to write because he wanted to tell a story. In this particular comic book he seems to be playing to the crowd, writing hamfisted heroics and Shatner-esque dialogue ("Bolts of fire! Melting our weapons!") because he figures that's what people have come to expect from him. There no longer seems to be any inspiration in his writing.

Between this and the painfully terrible "Who Wants to Be a Superhero," I'm now convinced that Stan should just limit himself to cameos in the movies based on his characters, and stick to non-speaking roles.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Conspiracy Theory Made in China

The conspiracy theory is uncharted territory for me, but with the whole Mattel recall thing just stinking to the high heavens of, at the very least, a corporate cover-up, I thought I'd throw my two-cents in.

Recalls of and advisories on products made in China are all the rage these days: from the announcement in local media that White Rabbit candies (a favorite of mine from childhood) contain formaldehyde to globe-spanning news of massive recalls made by one of the world's biggest toy companies, Mattel, of millions of its products, China and its manufacturing industry are currently among the media's favorite whipping boys. Their shoddy manufacturing processes made the cover of Time magazine, no less.

Now, the more seasoned conspiracy theorists (and I've done a wee bit of surfing to check them out) are quick to nail Mattel to the wall for their whole recall snafu, citing corporate incompetency and corruption, among other things. They ask perfectly legitimate questions like: whose idea was it to subcontract anyway? What happened to all of their quality control?

These are all legitimate questions, to which I would like to add a couple of my own:

To start off, why does the slant in most of the news reports I've read lay the blame on the doorstep of the Chinese subcontractors?

Why, after soooooo many years of having several of their product lines manufactured in China (somewhere between the last two decades, at least) has not only Mattel, but at least one other prominent American toy manufactuer (Hasbro), found enough defects in their products to justify the recall of millions upon millions of items?

Product recall is hardly a new phenomenon, but in a day and age where quality control should be absolutely cutting edge, one wonders how such fundamental aspects of manufacturing as what kind of paint gets put on their toys can slip right under the noses of the quality control inspectors of some of the biggest toy companies in the world.

If anything, this debacle should serve as an indictment of the American way of doing business: always trying to get more for less, cutting corners, and putting out a cheap, profitable product at the expense of public safety.

So, why, oh why has this turned into a discussion of China's unsafe manufacturing processes, to the extent that Mattel and Hasbro and made to look more like the victims than like the villains that they really are here?

I suspect I know why, and I'm certainly not the first person to adopt this theory: these are all the products of a systematic effort to undermine China's attempts to establish itself as a world power.

I am no fan of China or the way they do things: the 1989 Tianmen Square Massacre, by itself, has forever turned me off to them, especially considering they don't seem to be doing things any differently since then. I won't discount that there are shady practices going on in terms of how they manufacture their foodstuffs, their plastics, and whatnot. It is entirely possible and even likely.

But I submit that the media campaign that has been going on for the last several months to "expose" these practices, which has come to a head with the whole Mattel scandal, seems, on its face, extremely heavy-handed, and not very even-handed. It just does not seem credible that an industry giant like Mattel would be so oblivious to the processes employed by its sub-contractors that it would release finished products bearing its own badging before the lapse would be discovered.

And so my theory of a concerted media effort to put a big black smear on the burgeoning economic giant that is China is born. Personally, it seems to me a VERY convenient coincidence that the biggest 'victims' of China's shoddy manufacturing processes are extremely prominent American companies. And of course, the banner headline of many an American periodical seem intent to emphasize that it was products made in China that were hazardous, not products of Mattel or Hasbro.

Hey, if the world is to blame a country full of shitty, sub-standard manufacturing practices, we should equally blame the people who contract people from this country and who make use of these sub-standard manufacturing processes without imposing their own quality-control which, one would think after over THIRTY years in the manufacturing business, they would have perfected by now. You want to crucify China? Well, include the "two thieves" (and possibly more) as well: the idiots who had their products made there and left the Chinese to their own devices without a hint of quality control.

I don't pretend to know all the facts here, and that's precisely why I ask these questions and encourage people to ask their own. The knee-jerk reaction to all is to conclude that products made in China are bad. Period. I think a problem as serious as millions of defective consumer products deserves a more intelligent response than that, and certainly a more intelligent response than what we have been getting in the media so far.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On Untimely Death

I doubt a whole lot of people who happen upon this blog and read it even know who Mike Wieringo was; like I said in a previous post, I didn't know him personally. From the information that was available, though, I gathered a few things: he was a health buff, a well-liked person and apparently a very gentle person. Learnings these things about this person really got me thinking about the nature of death and how it can really catch people off guard at the worst possible time, and how it never seems to take the people that deserve it the most at the time it is most needed.

Yes, I know that last part was a bit brutal, but it cuts to the theme of this particular post, which is how completely mystified I am by the whole concept of "who gets chosen" to die. We all die, eventually, and I for one believe that when we find ourselves on the verge of the afterlife we are measured by how we lived our lives before. But clearly, some of us have to die before others.

In most cases the order of death is a fairly logical affair; the people who are old and/or infirm die first, and the people who are young and healthy die later, after they have become old and infirm. There are things that upset this balance, like wars, accidents and murders, and they are tragic, but to an extent they are understandable. The human hand behind these occurrences often rears its head, and even when it doesn't, depending on the circumstances, somehow people can bring themselves to accept these unfortunate facts of life.

I submit, though, that what truly boggles the mind is the occurrence of deaths like that of Mr. Wieringo, an avid vegetarian and regular exercise buff, dead of a heart attack, of all things, at the very young age of 44. Killed in an accident? Sad, but sure. Murdered in his apartment by a mugger? Terrible, but at the very least attributable to the evil of man. But dead of a heart attack? Considering the way he lived his life and considering how young he was? On its face it just doesn't add up.

I mean, this was essentially an act of God that took this guy's life, and I for one, can't help but ask why? The guy was a comic book artist, and a pretty good one in not only my opinion but those of his fans. He made people happy. He provided something valuable in its own way. And from all indications, he was a nice guy, not the egomaniac that so many comic-book professionals inevitably become.

There are millions of other candidates for what happened to him. Off the top of my head and enumerating the Filipino demographic alone I can think of more than a few, politicians, appointed government officials living on the take, Abu Sayyaf brigands, drug pushers...and the list simply goes on, ranging from the cliche to the more, um, personal choices. I mean, a lot of people on this list often live life to excess, abusing their bodies with food, alcohol, exposure to sexually-transmitted disease, and yet show up time and again on our TV screens and front page headlines in all their corrupt, often corpulent glory. They give nothing of any sort of worth to society; they only live to take, and taking is all they ever do up until the time they die, which in most cases can simply not come soon enough.

I may not have lost a direct relative in so untimely a fashion, but I've had enough of my friends die before ever hitting the age of 30 to feel truly embittered at the seeming arbitrariness of it all.

Marvel editor Tom Brevoort made a good point about living life to the fullest because there simply are no guarantees, and I won't refute that, but my gripe is that so many of the people who form a blight on humanity are living life to the fullest; how come they're still here?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Taking a Moment of Pause

I'd like to dedicate this post to comic book artist Mike Wieringo, who passed away yesterday at 44. Here's the link:

I don't have much of his stuff in my collection, but Wieringo is an artist who work I have always liked; I always found it to be crisp and clean. I have a few issues of his seminal Fantastic Four run with Mark Waid, including the very last issue of that run, as well as almost all of his issues of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man with Peter David. Really enjoyable stuff. I was also a huge fan of his blog at, where every new post came with a lovely sketch.

I didn't know the man personally, nor was I his biggest fan, so I haven't that much to say, but I would like to offer my condolences to all his friends and loved ones.

The comics community, creator and fan alike, has just suffered a terrible loss.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Finally, a Threequel that Gets It Right

I've made no secret of how disappointed I was with Spider-Man 3, or how much I loathed Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The former I saw out of love for the franchise, and the latter out of a sense of completism considering that the second movie was left dangling; having no such reasons to see the other 'threequels,' namely Shrek the Third and Ocean's Thirteen, I happily saved myself the trouble and the money of going to see them.

I am a huge fan of both 2002's The Bourne Identity and its 2004 sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, and have both of them on DVD. The impetus to see The Bourne Ultimatum, therefore, was quite strong. Then, in a rare move by the a local distributor these days, Solar Films elected to release the movie a full two weeks after its American start date, and as a result I was able to catch a lot of spoiler-free, absolutely glowing reviews, which filled me with hope for what was hyped as the concluding chapter of the Bourne trilogy. By the time I actually saw the movie last night, my expectations were soaring.

Not only did the film, starring Damon and directed by his Supremacy collaborator Paul Greengrass, meet my expectations; it blew them away.

The movie basically picks up about five minutes before the second movie ends (in a brilliant piece of writing and editing I will expound on later) with the Russian police chasing Jason Bourne through Moscow scant moments after he has given a heartfelt apology to the daughter of his first targets.

What follows is a little bit of exposition, as few new characters are introduced, such as the British investigative reporter named Simon Ross (played by Paddy Considine) whose insatiable curiosity about Bourne and the covert government agency that spawned him serves as the catalyst for the entire story. Bourne reads one of Ross's articles about him and decides to track him down. Around the same time, Ross himself makes a cell-phone call to his editor and mentions 'Blackbriar' the name of the program created to replace the Treadstone program under which, many years before, Bourne had been created. Upon his very mention of the word 'Blackbriar,' the virtually omnipotent CIA, headed up this time by slimy Assistant Director Noah Vosen (a truly malevolent portayal by Oscar nominee David Stathairn), pinpoints Ross through the magic of surveillance technology and targets him for termination.

What ensues is a relentless chase across the world, with Bourne tracking down important clues to understanding his past. His relentless search takes him from London to Madrid to Tangier, where he must survive bombs, bone-crunching fistfights and neck-breaking car chases. At the end of it all, his dogged efforts culminate in an ominous confrontation in New York with the man who was effectively his maker, a chilling Dr. Mengele-like behavior modification specialist played by Albert Finney who answers every single question that has been festering in Bourne's (and every interested viewer's) mind since the first movie.

The casual action movie fan will come away satisfied with the various action set pieces, easily the best of any movie of the last several years. The climactic hand-to-hand fight between Bourne and a younger, equally formidable CIA asset (Joey Ansah) is the easily the most gripping of the entire franchise, and comes at the tail-end of a similarly thrilling rooftop chase sequence which has Bourne jumping from rooftops into windows. The end result leaves the audience gasping for breath. Of course, no Bourne movie would be complete without a mind-blowing car chase sequence, and this one doesn't disappoint. James Bond may have his Aston Martin, but in terms of sheer driving prowess he has absolutely nothing on Jason Bourne. In the same vein, the James Bond films, even the latest installment Casino Royale, have nothing on the Bourne movies in terms of balls-to-the-wall action. Yes, action movie fans from all walks of life should be comprehensively satisfied.

On top of all of this, however, an even nicer reward awaits the people who have patiently pieced together Bourne's history from the first two movies. Not only was I absolutely thrilled to have every imaginable loose end tied up with this installment, but I loved all of the little visual and narrative nods to the first and second movies that Greengrass sneaked in to let us know that finally, Bourne's about to come full circle. It was also a nice storytelling touch to give Bourne allies from within the CIA for the first time in the franchise's history; Bourne veterans Joan Allen and Julia Stiles reprise their roles as Assistant Director Pamela Landy and Logistics Operative Nicky Parsons, both of whom are now playing for Bourne's team. It gives the series a real sense of progression from the way things were in the beginning.

When Nicky, about to go on the run after helping Bourne and nearly paying for it with her life, washes the blond highlights out of her hair just before cutting it short, followers of the series instantly detect an homage to the first movie, in which Bourne washes and then cuts the hair of his then-love interest Marie, to change her appearance. Marie, by now, has been killed, and Nicky, it is revealed, once shared a past with Bourne. In this instance, however, rather than end up making love to Nicky as he did to Marie, Bourne sees her off to the bus station rather stoically. There's a touch of tragedy to the moment as we see in his eyes just how indifferent Bourne is to Nicky even after it's been revealed that they once shared something. The question is: is he genuinely indifferent to her, or has he trained himself to be completely cold again after having lost Marie to an assassin's bullet? It's an interesting little tidbit for fans of the series to chew on for a moment just before the final act rolls around.

(Spoiler alert)

The single most blatant visual homage, of course, is the shot of Bourne floating in the East River just moments before swimming off to his freedom and the end credits start to roll. A shot of Bourne floating unconscious in the Mediterranean is, of course, how the entire series began.

But what also gave me an honest-to-God nerdgasm was how brilliantly the last two sequences from the second movie were written and cut into the story of the third installment.

The second movie actually ended with Bourne placing a call to Landy while she's in New York. There had, in the film, been a bit of a time lapse between his time in Russia and the phone call to Landyk, and as a result when the third film opens with Bourne still in Moscow, one wonders what happened to his phone call to Landy. The answer? It's woven seamlessly into the narrative. The phone call actually begins the third act of Ultimatum, in what feels like a scriptwriting masterstroke. Whether this was deliberately done by the filmmakers when writing the second film or a clever idea on the part of screenwriters Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, it was executed to absolute perfection.

The Bourne Ultimatum wraps up what has been a truly splendid cinematic trilogy, and while the door is still open for more, I left the theater feeling thoroughly satisfied with how everything had been resolved.

I would, however, be lying if I said I didn't want to see more of Jason Bourne's adventures.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Another Civil War Ending in the Making

I just picked up World War Hulk #3 (and two weeks after the release of #2, at that!), and although I enjoyed the artwork, I find myself having a problem with the progression of the story, so rather than go into the specifics of the issue (other than the art), I thought I'd discuss my misgivings about the direction of the story.

It's no secret that many were disappointed by the way Civil War turned out, with Captain America surrendering to the U.S. government even after he had Iron Man on the ropes, both physically and ideologically. All things considered, however, it must be said that the ending did give rise to a new and potentially very interesting status quo for the Marvel Universe, a development that was categorically promised by everyone at Marvel from the day the project was announced (as they do with every event).

What makes WWH different, and to my mind, worrisome, is that Joe Quesada has practically gone out of his way to say that this series is nothing more than a straight-up slugfest, a "light green sorbet." In short, it seems quite clear that this is not meant to be a status-quo shattering event; nobody's going to die, and nothing that occurs here is meant to have any serious ramifications for the rest of the Marvel line. Quesada and company have already said that WWH does not result in the post-Civil War status quo being reset in any way. Registration of superheroes will still be the norm.

So, when Hulk and his Warbound kick the collective ass of the Marvel Universe, round up all of the Marvel heroes and fit them with "obedience disks" and set them all up to do gladiatorial battle in Madison Square Garden, we the readers know that every single Marvel hero featured in these pages is walking out of there just fine.

So where does that leave the Hulk and the vengeance he has intended to wreak on Mr. Fantastic, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange and Iron Man?

I only hope Pak's imagination offers this story a resolution that doesn't feel like a cop-out or as anticlimactic as Captain America's surrender, because I don't see this ending well for the Hulk at all, and after everything the Hulk has been through, that just wouldn't feel right.

I am actually enjoying this series, but frankly I see Pak writing himself into a bit of a corner here, a trajectory that started as early as last year's Planet Hulk.

Well, as much as I hope the journey has a better end than that which I foresee, at least this series can boast some of the best art of any of the recent events. I submit that, all things being equal, meaning if there were no such thing as exclusive contracts or artists who couldn't meet deadlines, John Romita Jr. would still be the best artist for this project, so at the end of the day, Marvel can still put that feather in their cap.