Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Have you tried NOT being a mutant?"

"Over 20 years after the Chernobyl accident, and am I the only one that’s disappointed? Still no superheroes."
British comedian Jimmy Carr
In fact, today marks the 23rd year since the faulty reactor at Chernobyl dumped 400 times the fallout from Hiroshima into the environment. And, as Mr. Carr quite accurately points out, that should be lots of time for a mutant or two to have been born, grown up, ostracized by the rest of humanity, and forced to take refuge at some sort of "school" for gifted youngsters run by a bald guy in a wheelchair. And yet, here we are without even a single mutant superhero, let alone dueling armies of heroes and villains. What went wrong?

Let's start with mutation. A little research reveals that mutation is a "base-pair sequence change" in DNA that results in a new characteristic or trait. (Base pairs are all those combinations of the four nucleotides represented by the letters G, A, T and C which provided the source material for the movie title GATTACA.) A change in certain base pairs might result in a butterfly that's a different colour than its siblings, for example. The human genome contains 3 billion base pairs, and I'm willing to accept that the laws of chance allow for all kinds of things to happen when you're dealing with numbers on that scale. After all, if you were flipping 3 billion quarters, it's not impossible for all of them to come up heads.

To extend the analogy, even if they do all come up heads, we're still flipping only quarters, not pennies or nickels. Some of the X-men have abilities that make no sense in terms of mutation* - how in the world would the necessary genetic information for wings get into someone's DNA? It's one thing to get a butterfly that's a funny colour (or even a person with blue skin), but it seems pretty unlikely that you could get a butterfly with lobster claws or porcupine quills.

But I'm not entirely against the concept of the mutant superhero. How could we possibly predict whether or not some combination of genes might allow for telepathy, telekinesis, or any of the other unproven psionic abilities? And I'm happy to give Wolverine the full seal of mutant approval. There's a tendency to forget that his actual mutant abilities are rapid healing and animal-like senses - sensitive smell, hearing and so on - which although a bit extreme are logical extensions of existing human capabilities. People tend to focus more on the adamantium skeleton and claws, which after all are custom add-ons rather than factory stock.

However, the adamantium skeleton implanted by Stryker's Weapon X programme must lead to problems. The human skeleton isn't just a support system for the muscles. Bone marrow produces blood cells, a crucial part of the body's ability to transfer oxygen and fight disease. Logically, if Logan's skeleton is made out of metal, his rapid healing factor must be in a constant battle to prevent something very much like a combination of anemia and leukemia. I wonder if they're going to talk about that in the new movie?
- Sid

*And even less in terms of physics. The ability to shoot intense powerful beams of energy from your eyes? You've got to think that it would take Mother Nature thousands of generations to build the necessary structures for that. (And I can't imagine that you'd be able to see with the same organs that were able to blast a hole through concrete.) How do you fuel something like that? What possible natural energy source could the human body contain that would allow for that kind of power? For that matter, what are the back of Cyclops' eye sockets made out of in order to make sure that the energy doesn't blast out through the back of his head when his eyes are closed? My god, on that basis what are his eyelids made out of?

And why do Bruce Banner's pants never rip the same way the rest of his clothing does when he turns into the Hulk? I know, I know, they're just comic books.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

And of course a movie is being planned.

Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
Comics Code Authority, 1954
Recently my friend Laurie was complaining about being cursed by her own success at work. She's currently booking fitness training sessions at about twice her quota, and has been forced to request that her overtime limit be raised so that she can do all of her administrative tasks as well.

The impressive part is that she's not even trying to sell her services. As she commented, "It's like I can't escape these people, they seem to come out of nowhere!"

My reply was that I could easily imagine what it must be like: closing time at the gym, and she's just turned out the lights (as demanded by dramatic tradition in this area). Then, out of the shadows come the shambling, decaying figures of gym zombies, draped in tattered Lululemon outfits, with the moaning cry of "Traaaainnnnnn.....traaaaaainnn...."*

How is it that zombies have become part of the cultural landscape?

Zombies would seem to be a particularly 20th century conceit. The concept of the revenant, someone who has returned from the dead, exists as far back as the Middle Ages, but unlike the vampire or the werewolf, the current version of the zombie seems to owe very little to its historical antecedents.

EC Comics planted the seed for the modern zombie in its 1950's titles such as Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, which featured the vengeful return from the grave by murder victims as a staple of its content. The whys and hows of such a return were secondary: the important part was the visual impact of these rotting horrors from the graveyard as they lurched into the homes of their killers to exact a grisly revenge.

Sadly, it was exactly this sort of over-the-top approach to storytelling which led to the downfall of EC Comics and their brethren. A psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham undertook a crusade against the adverse effects of EC's horrific tales and their negative impact on the children who read them, publishing his results in his infamous book The Seduction of the Innocent. In 1954, Congress undertook an investigation of juvenile delinquency, with Wertham as a prominent witness. The congressional committee concluded that comics were not directly responsible for delinquency among youth, but strongly recommended that some sort of control be instituted over the content of comics.

In response, the comics industry created the Comics Code Authority and its list of forbidden content. Since the list was more or less derived directly from the EC Comics material, EC soon found itself out of business.

However, EC left its mark by inserting the whole idea of zombies into the psyche of a generation of comic readers - and eventual movie makers. (The principals of EC also went on to develop MAD Magazine, which left a completely different mark, but I digress.)

The real front man for zombie promotion is of course George Romero, whose 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead might be considered the crop from the seeds planted by EC. In the years since Romero's black and white magnum opus, there have been innumerable zombie movies that have firmly established walking cannibal corpses as part of the horror canon. Interestingly, there's a common thread in these films that blames government experiments gone wrong for the rise of zombies, rather than any sort of supernatural process.

And now, the shelves of bookstores are graced by another attempt by zombies to earn acceptance in the mainstream: Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is actually credited to Jane Austen and Mr. Grahame-Smith. This dual credit strikes me as a marketing ploy - obviously the publishers are hoping that Ms. Austen will rise from the grave to avenge herself. (Perhaps some cameras should be set up near her gravesite in preparation.)

But really, when you think about it, Wertham and the Comics Code Authority people should have known better. After all, everyone knows that zombies eventually find a way in, no matter what.
- Sid

* Sadly, Laurie didn't get the "braaains" reference, but I thought it was funny.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Wouldn't you rather see the whole movie?"

Imagine if you will: you and a couple of friends decide to head over to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, down there in Austin, Texas - they're going to show The Wrath of Khan, the best of the original series Star Trek movies, as part of this year's Fantastic Fest, and then there's supposed to be a ten minute preview from the new Star Trek prequel movie. There's a bit of chat from the guests from the production team of the new movie about the preview, then Wrath of Khan starts.

Ah, come on - two minutes in and the film jams? Damn analog technology.... Hold on, who's that on stage? Leonard Nimoy? Spock? What? And he's just asked if we wouldn't rather see the WHOLE new Star Trek movie?!

The surprise premiere of the new Star Trek movie at this year's Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, an annual film festival dedicated to fantasy, horror, action and science fiction, has to be the best thank-you to the fan community of all time. It's also an extraordinarily brave thing to do, especially considering that the recent Wolverine work print leak is still echoing around the Internet. But even without that, I have to give Paramount full credit for boldly combining a brilliant guerilla marketing move with an acknowledgement of the importance of the fans to the Star Trek franchise.

It's also going to make those people in the audience into legends in the fan community: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers", as Shakespeare puts it. Of course, the hard core being what it is, you can guarantee that at least one person in the audience was angry about not seeing Wrath of Khan for the 215th time.
- Sid