Monday, March 1, 2021

Marvel Immersion Project: Secret Wars #1-6

Secret Wars is often credited as the first comic book "event."  It was a 12-issue limited crossover series pulling together as many heroes and villains as possible from the Marvel universe.  Mattel had bought the license for Marvel-themed merchandise and they wanted a promotional series to coincide with the toy release.  In truth, there isn't much to the story: basically a battle royale between the goodies and the baddies.  And interestingly, the toys didn't sell very well.

However, the comic books themselves flew off of the shelves: the best-selling series in 25 years.  The impact on the industry was huge.  Nearly four decades later, crossovers are still the norm for both Marvel and DC.  Plus, some of the toy innovations in turn became permanent features of the Marvel comic book landscape.

Jim Shooter, lead writer for Secret Wars, was born September 27, 1951 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He has been working professionally in comic books since he was 14 years old.  In 1978, he became Editor-in-Chief for Marvel, a position he still held when he decided he himself was the best choice to write Secret Wars.  
While he is given loads of credit for putting the troubled company back on track, Shooter was a control freak and drove a lot of Marvel's best talent - Steve Gerber, John Byrne, Roy Thomas - to DC and elsewhere.  In fact, it was with Secret Wars that the biggest trouble began.  Marvel fired Shooter in 1987.  He went on to become Editor-in-Chief for Valiant Comics.


My Recent Reads

Secret Wars #1
Originally Published May 10, 1984
Writer: Jim Shooter
Artist: Michael Zeck
  • A group of good guys - Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four - and a group of bad guys - Dr. Doom, Magneto, Galactus, Doc Ock, etc. - have been plucked from their usual dwellings and dumped on a distant planet, Battleworld.  A mysterious being called the Beyonder has brought them together to fight one another, presumably for his own amusement.
  • There are a few new faces - for me, at least in the comics - on both sides.
    • Good guys:
      • Rogue
      • Lockheed
    • Bad guys:
      • Ultron
      • Bulldozer
      • Piledriver
      • Thunderball (The last three, along with Wrecker, comprise the Wrecking Crew.)
  • A few interesting wrinkles:
    • The two sides were summoned to separate camps.  Surprisingly, Magneto ended up in the good guy camp.
    • Galactus, interstellar behemoth that he is, doesn't take much notice of the others.  He tries to attack the Beyonder (unseen) on his own but fails.  

Secret Wars #2
June 10, 1984
Shooter/Zeck
  • Magneto breaks off and finds his a third fortress, essentially creating his own individual faction.
  • The fighting continues.

Secret Wars #3
July 10, 1984
Shooter/Zeck
Volcana via Marvel Database

  • Titania and Volcana make their first appearances, both on the bad guy side.  Mattel requested some new female characters.
  • Magneto captures the Wasp and holds her prisoner in his fortress.  He tries to charm her over to his side.  It appears to work.
  • On the good guy side, everyone misses their wives and girlfriends.
  • Spider-Man has a tussle with the X-Men.  He suspects them of breaking off to form their own faction.  He's kind of right, though their intentions are good.
  • Molecule Man drops a mountain on top of the Avengers.
  • The fighting continues.

Secret Wars #4
August 10, 1984
Shooter/Bob Layton
  • Haha!  Wasp was just fooling Magneto.  When the X-Men arrive at M's fortress, she turns on him.
  • Thanks to Hulk's strength and Iron Man's ingenuity, the Avengers are able to escape from under the mountain which had been dropped upon them.
  • Kang dies.  Doom kills him.
  • The fighting continues.

Secret Wars #5
September 10, 1984
Shooter/Layton
  • Galactus summons his worldship, as big as a solar system.  Apparently, he plans to eat Battleworld.
  • Magneto is brought back into the good guy fold.  The X-Men initially bristle under Magneto's orders but Professor X convinces them it's in their best interest to cooperate.
  • Dr. Doom finds his way aboard Galactus's ship where he finds the tools he needs to defeat everyone, Galactus and Beyonder included.
  • The fighting continues.

Secret Wars #6
October 10, 1984
Shooter/Zeck
  • After escaping from Magneto and the X-Men, Wasp finds herself on her own.  She encounters Lizard and the two develop a refreshingly trusting relationship.  Lizard is, after all, a more nuanced character than most of the other baddies.  They both get picked up by The Wrecking Crew, in Wasp's case, after they've knocked her unconscious.
  • While on Galactus's ship, Dr. Doom encounters a very woozy Klaw and brings him into the fold.
  • Storm and Charles quarrel over who is in charge of the X-Men.  Charles wins.
  • Galactus has nearly finished his planet eating machine.
  • The fighting continues.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Star Trek: The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2

Episode: "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 4, Episode 1
Original Air Date: September 24, 1990

via Tim Lynch Star Trek Reviews Wiki

The story begun in last week's featured episode concludes.  The previous episode (and season) ended with Picard being captured by the Borg, then incorporated into the collective as Locutus, to serve as spokesman for the Borg in their presumed conquest of Earth.  Riker - now acting-captain of the Enterprise - must now square off against his former friend and boss and hope that his people can find a weakness in the seemingly irresistible enemy.  Interestingly, the writers themselves weren't even sure how they were going to conclude the story after Part 1.  They didn't see any vulnerabilities in the Borg either.  Fortunately, inspiration came over the summer in time for the new season.

A few worthy notes:
  • Riker's decision to stay aboard the Enterprise is retroactively justified when the USS Melbourne, the ship he would have commanded, is destroyed by the Borg at Wolf 359.  It's not the first time in the series this little narrative trick has been employed - kind of a lazy resolution to the problem, to be honest.
  • That same battle will have important implications for Deep Space Nine, TNG's first spinoff series.
  • Part 2 is generally considered to be the weaker of the two episodes but I prefer it.  As noted last week, it has important implications for the development of Picard.  Over the long run, I feel Jean-Luc's efforts to come to terms with what happened to him represent the most meaningful fallout from this story.  As such, I feel that "Family," the next episode, is actually more interesting.  That one, in turn, helps lay the groundwork for an absolutely stunning DS9, Season 7 episode.  But I'm getting way ahead of myself...

Acting Notes

via Charmed Wiki

Elizabeth Dennehy (Lt. Commander Shelby) was born October 1, 1960 in Jacksonville, North Carolina.  She is the daughter of legendary actor Brian Dennehy and his first wife, Judith Scheff.  She trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.  In addition to Trek, she has made guest appearances on such shows as Guiding Light, Seinfeld and Charmed.  Her films include Clear and Present Danger, Gattaca and Red Dragon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Squid Mixes: Gin and Bitter Lemon


Our Bronx Cocktail explorations leave us with quite a lot of surplus gin to work through.  Unlike whiskey, or even vermouth, I'm not up for drinking the stuff straight.  Mixers are essential.  While tonic water is the standard and perfectly acceptable, something different once in a while is also nice.  Plus, in the further interest of pantry clearing, we do have some bitter lemon soda sitting around.

The combination is quite nice.  In fact, I might go so far is to say it's better than gin and tonic.  I guess I prefer lemon to quinine.  

Monday, February 22, 2021

Marvel Immersion Project: Thor #378-382

My Recent Reads

Thor #378
Originally Published April 1, 1987
Writer: Walter Simonson
Artist: Sal Buscema
  • The Frost Giants attack Loki's castle.
  • Loki realizes his disadvantage and runs away from them, throwing the still unconscious Thor in their way as a shield.
  • Loki pleads with Iceman, his captive, to help but Iceman refuses, instead cranking up the cold to further strengthen and draw the attention of the giants.
  • Loki falls to the giants but the now revived Thor comes to his rescue, shamed by the mistaken belief that Loki has acted bravely whereas he himself has not.
  • Thor defeats the giants, though he feels ashamed by the fact that it was due to the new armor, not his own bravery.  Thor certainly does have a fragile ego!
  • After retreating, the giants plot their next attack, planning to target Loki's son, Jormungand.

Thor #379
May 1, 1987
Simonson/S. Buscema
Fin Fang Foom via Marvel Database

  • The giants travel to Norway to awaken Jormungand, son of Loki aka the World Serpent and Dragon of Midgard.  Instead, they find Fin Fang Foom (it really is Jormungand in disguise but they don't realize it yet).
  • The giants goad FFF into fighting Thor.  The dragon goes to New York to find him.  They meet in the park, though FFF doesn't recognize Thor.
  • The two reveal their true selves (Jormungand in a beautiful full-page panel) and the battle begins.

Thor #380
June 1, 1987
Writer and Artist: Walter Simonson
  • Visually, the issue is stunning, each page but the last a single, full-page panel. 
  • Storywise, it's pretty simple:
    • Thor and Jorgungand battle.
    • After their final, brilliant clash, Jorgungand is dead and Thor's armor lies empty.

Thor #381
July 1, 1987
Simonson/S. Buscema
  • The frost giants discover Thor's armor.  He's still in there, but reduced to jelly.  They beat up on him for a while.
  • But Loki summons the Destroyer who starts beating up on Thor, only to realize he isn't fighting back.  Impressed, he tries to absorb Thor's undying spirit.  Thor's spirit fights but Destroyer prevails.
  • Destroyer puts on all of Thor's gear and even picks up Mjolnir.  He teleports away.
  • Featured: the Avengers, including some new team personnel.
    • Black Knight
    • Doctor Druid
    • Hawkeye
    • Mockingbird
    • Wonder Man
  • Meanwhile, Utgard-Loki (based on Útgarða-Loki of Norse mythology) is planning to lead the giants in an attack on Asgard.

Thor #382
August 1, 1987
Simonson/S. Buscema
  • Walter Simonson's last issue.
  • The Destroyer, now in Thor garb, arrives in Hel and starts, well, destroying everything.
  • Hela summons Thor and restores him, intending to kill him to stop Destroyer - death works in mysterious ways.
  • The jokes on her.  As Thor returns, he triumphs and Hela lifts her curse over him.
  • Thor then returns to Asgard and defeats the giants, though he lets Utgard-Loki go when he promises to lift Loki's curse over Asgard. 
  • All is back to normal, just in time to pass the story on to the new creators.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Star Trek: The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1

Episode: "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 3, Episode 26
Original Air Date: June 18, 1990

The Borg have invaded Federation space, and sooner than anyone expected.  The Enterprise and her crew must stop them.  To add to the stress, Riker has been offered his own command aboard the USS Melbourne and questions arise as to why he has been reluctant to take this obvious next step in his career.  An ambitious lieutenant commander, Shelby, is on board to help with the Borg crisis and she is not shy about pointing out Riker's shortcomings.

"The Best of Both Worlds" has been called by many not only TNG's best but even one of the best American television episodes of all time.  I'll admit that it's good but I'm not quite on board with such extraordinary praise.  In fact, I'm not even sure it makes my short list for the series.  One reason is that, full disclosure, I've historically struggled to stay awake through the entire thing.  While that may be more a coincidence than a reflection of quality, it's not exactly a point in favor.  The impact of the season-ending cliffhanger was also minimal for me the first time I watched it as I knew there were still several more seasons and movies to go.  I will acknowledge, though, that the story is probably the most important one for the series and certainly for the character of Picard even if it may not be my personal favorite.

I promise to stay awake through all of it this time!  Perhaps I will reserve my final judgment until after "Part 2."

*****

Thoughts on Season 3

General Impressions

The Next Generation found its footing in Season 3.  The best episodes qualify as genuine classics and, just as importantly, the worst aren't nearly as clunky as what we'd seen before.  Beverly Crusher came back which was an excellent development.  It looks like we're in it for the long haul.


Favorite Episode: "The Offspring"

This is, in fact, my favorite episode for the entire series.  Data becomes a father and experiences his most quasi-emotional growth as a result.  It was the second of a particularly masterful three-episode run for the series.  Massive credit goes to guest star Hallie Todd, first-time screenwriter Rene Echevarria and first-time director Jonathan Frakes.


Least Favorite Episode: "Evolution"

"Evolution," the season premier, is a Wesley episode - not a good starting point.  Plus, I found the guest star, Ken Jenkins, rather annoying.  But like I said, even the worst aren't so bad anymore.  "Evolution" has some fun Guinan development.  Speaking of...


Favorite Recurring Character: Guinan

Get used to seeing her in this space.  Her "You're not supposed to be here" line in "Yesterday's Enterprise" is one of Trek's all-time greats.  My only regret is that they couldn't use her more often.


Favorite Blast from the Past: Sarek

Mark Lenard returned as Sarek, Spock's father, in the episode "Sarek."  This was a big deal for the series, big picture.  Gene Roddenberry, wanting the new series to stand on its own merits, was reluctant to allow even references to the original show.  "Sarek" was the first crack in that resolve.


Favorite Guest Actor, One-Shot: Hallie Todd

Tough call.  Dwight Schultz is a strong runner-up.  (As with Moriarty in Season 2, Barclay doesn't qualify as a recurring character yet.)  But performing Lal, Data's android daughter, was the taller order.  From the moment she first feels pain to when she says her final touching good-bye, she achieves a mesmerizing range of emotion, all within the convincing restraints of the character.  Oh, and when she grabs Riker to kiss him!  It's a brilliant performance.


Onward

While "The Best of Both Worlds" is ultimately more of a Riker story, it marks the beginning of Picard coming into his own.  He was the leader of the show from the beginning.  Now he gets to spread his wings.

We'll get the last major personnel move soon, too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Squid Mixes: The Bronx Cocktail Chronicles


A Bronx Cocktail combines gin, orange juice, dry vermouth and sweet vermouth.  It's a drink whose heyday is long past but it's one of our house favorites, especially with fresh OJ. I use slightly different proportions from Eric Felten's in How's Your Drink?  He favors a 6:4:1:1 ratio for the ingredients listed above.  I double the vermouths.  Particularly for this current exercise, I want to taste them as much as possible without threatening the other flavors.

And so we enter the world of gin.  This could take a while.  Unlike the other liquors we've tasted so far, gin offerings are vast on Vermont's liquor store shelves in all price ranges.  As such, I anticipate a long and non-linear path in our gin explorations.  Let's get to it.


Fleischmann's vs. Beefeater

Fleischmann's has been our go-to for a while.  I will admit this up front: we've been slumming it with gin for years.  We're not exactly martini people, by which I mean gin is by no means our liquor of choice.  So a weak gin generally suits us fine.  Why pay more for something you don't really want?  Yes, I realize this presents an awkward contradiction as we embark upon our journey.  But this is why we seek to learn, right?

Beefeater, on the other hand, is quite a strong gin so this was an easy choice for both of us.  Less is more.

Winner: Fleischmann's


Fleischmann's vs. Barr Hill

Barr Hill is a local Vermont product.  It's unusual for the fact that it is made with honey in addition to the juniper berries.

My wife preferred Barr Hill, finding it a smoother flavor, the extra sugar perhaps taking the edge off of the gin.  This presents a different sort of dilemma.  Barr Hill is a lot more expensive.  A 750 ml bottle of Fleischmann's costs $5.99 in Vermont.  Barr Hill costs $35.99.  So, even if Barr Hill is better, is it six times better?  No.  This necessitates two categories moving forward.

Winner and Champion, When It's on Sale Category: Barr Hill
Still Champion, Staple Category: Fleischmann's


Burnett's vs. New Amsterdam Stratusphere

My wife thought the Stratusphere tasted metallic.  It's also more expensive.

Winner: Burnett's


Burnett's vs. Barr Hill

This time it was Barr Hill that was deemed more metallic.  To me, it just tastes more ginny.  I guess I simply prefer a lighter gin - not actually a surprise.

A beat B, B beat C and A is in C's price range.  So...

Winner and Undisputed Champion: Burnett's


Seagram's Extra Dry vs. Prairie Organic

Yup, Prairie is a Minnesota-based distiller specializing in spirits made from organically grown ingredients.  It's good, too, possessing a more floral taste than the old war horse, Seagram's.

Winner: Prairie Organic


Beefeater 24 vs. Bombay Sapphire

This was a battle of gins in colorful bottles: the 24 in red, the Sapphire, of course, in blue.  Both have classic gin flavors, my wife describing the Sapphire, in particular, as like an old country club gin.  The Sapphire has a nutty taste whereas the 24 is sweeter.

The 24 comes from the 24 hours during which the gin is infused with 12 botanicals, including both Japanese and Chinese tea.

Winner: Beefeater 24


Beefeater 24 vs. Prairie Organic

Prairie was more floral, 24 more piney.

Winner: Prairie Organic


Burnett's vs. Prairie Organic

Burnett's tastes less woody.

Winner and Still Champion: Burnett's


Gordon's vs. Gilbey's

It's a battle of the G's, and two of the cheaper brands on the shelves.  Gordon's wins.  It was the fruitier of the two.

Winner: Gordon's


Burnett's vs. Gordon's

My wife didn't really have a preference, though she did feel the Burnett's was less piney.  All else being equal, price is the deciding factor.  Burnett's is cheaper per volume.  So...

Winner and Still Champion: Burnett's


"Maybe I don't like gin," my wife said.  We've been edging towards this conclusion, for both of us, for a while now.  Eleven brands into these tests (count 'em), it's pretty clear we both shy away from the stronger gin flavors.  

The question, then, is where to go from here.  Do we switch to another gin-based drink?  My wife suggested gimlets though I might advocate for a new direction.  Orange season won't last forever anyway and Bronx cocktail quality is likely to decline when it ends.  Or do we move on to something else entirely, simply leaving this particular experiment by stating that Burnett's is our best so far?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

On the Coffee Table: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Title: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Author: J.K. Rowling

via Amazon

It's Year 6 for Harry Potter at Hogwarts and, per usual, our hero has quite a lot going on.  He is mourning the death of his godfather, killed right in front of him.  He's pretty sure his nemesis, Draco Malfoy, is up to something but no one takes his concerns seriously.  The Minister of Magic and the new potions teacher are both too eager to bask in his glory.  His two best friends can't seem to get along, largely because only one of them realizes they're in love with each other.  He has added responsibilities as Gryffindor's new quidditch captain.  He's coming to terms with his own romantic feelings for Ginny, his best pal's sister.  Oh, and the Dark Lord has made crystal clear that he wants to kill Harry.

Yes, I can see how it would all add up to a pretty stressful time.

This, the penultimate installment of the series, is a crucial one.  With each new book, the narrative has darkened.  Harry changes a lot, too.  Frankly, it's hard to like him sometimes as he drifts deeply into his moody teenage years.  I've always liked that aspect of the story.  Rowling allows all of her characters to grow up realistically.  Sometimes, in general, she lets Harry drift too close to perfection but she finds ways to pull him back into the believability range.  His miserable behavior on dates is a good example of this.  Early on in Half-Blood Prince, Harry has a rather unfortunate run in with Draco and definitely gets the worse end of it.  While by the end of the story, Harry's suspicion is vindicated, in this particular instance it's hard not to feel that our man kind of had it coming.  He was the one spying on a private conversation, after all.

Half-Blood Prince is an important book for three characters in particular: Ginny, Snape and, of course, Dumbledore. 

!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!

As discussed previously, Ginny is my favorite character in the Potterverse.  I love anyone who is disinclined to suffer the bullshit of others and Ginny even has some great moments putting Hermione in her place.  Ginny and Harry finally find each other and while minimal text is devoted to the relationship once it finally happens, one can feel Harry settle into himself.  It's wonderfully satisfying.

The Snape story is the hidden gem of the entire franchise and Year 6 is key.  The confrontation between Snape and Harry at the end of the book is revealing - far more so than Harry can see himself in the moment.  While Harry is firing spells at his soon to be former professor, Snape casually fends them off and taunts our man.  Except that he isn't taunting.  Snape is chastising him for everything he's failed to learn yet.  He's still teaching Harry!!!  That, my friends, is seriously badass.

The other bit Harry fails to grasp in the moment: at any point in the encounter, Snape could easily have killed him.  But he didn't.  Stay tuned.

Obviously, this is an essential Dumbledore story.  The ending is important, of course, but more so is the vulnerability he shows to Harry up until that point.  We all know Harry loves his headmaster.  Now it's clear that he's been loved right back.

!!! END OF SPOILER !!!

On to Year 7, the final book of the original series.  A lot of people don't like the way the HP story ends and I suppose I understand why.  It's when the tale becomes, seemingly, just another quest adventure like so many other thousands.  But I contend that it's different because of everything that comes before.

Year 7 is shrouded in a deep sadness, one earned through great loss - losses we've experienced along with the protagonist.  This sadness separates Rowling's story from Tolkein's or Lewis's.  In Middle Earth, the darkness is impending but it hasn't arrived yet.  In the original Narnia story, there is a strong sense of what has been lost but we didn't experience the loss along with the characters.  At Hogwarts, we've earned Harry's sadness and that makes all the difference.

Obviously, we'll talk about this more soon.