Monday, April 6, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: Fantastic Four #44-48

Boy, am I glad I didn't jump ship after #43!  It was tempting (see last week).  This week's stretch is outstanding, beginning with the introduction of the Inhumans and ending with the introduction of the Silver Surfer.  It's almost as if someone at Marvel were starting to get impatient with the series, too.

Who Are the Inhumans? Meet The Characters Of Marvel's 2018 Movie
The Inhumans: l to r, Gorgon, Crystal, Black Bolt, Medusa, Karna and Triton, via SlashFilm
Just as I was wishing for characters with nuance, along come the Inhumans.  Medusa, we learn, is a member of a super-powered race who has lived in secret in the Andes for thousands of years.  The more we see, the more we get the sense of a deep, rich history, now at a moment of fascinating political intrigue (FF seems to like that stuff as the Skrull saga is also dripping with it).  Are they the enemies of humanity?  Potential allies?  Hoping to be left alone?  It's complicated, and that's why it's good.

Then we arrive at #48.  When people put together must-read comic book compilations, Fantastic Four #48 is virtually guaranteed a spot on the list.  It is perhaps the magnum opus of Jack Kirby, in particular.  At least in the mid-'60s, the artists were responsible for a lot more of the comic book storytelling than the cover credits would suggest.  As the legend goes, Stan Lee left a simple note on Kriby's desk for #48: "The Fantastic Four meet God."  Jack filled in the rest for what is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Marvel's Silver Age. 

I'm still not sure I especially like the Fantastic Four as characters themselves.  Reed Richards, in particular, can be hard to take: arrogant, patronizing, chauvinistic.  I expressed my dissatisfaction with Sue last week.  Torch and Thing both whine too much.  So far, Thing is the most interesting to me but even he tests my patience.  So, I'm not sure if I'll ever come back to the Fantastic Four after I get to #60 but I'm definitely up for more with the Inhumans!

Meanwhile, it seems I've inadvertently skipped an episode.  Double-checking the Comic Book Herald list, I realized I forgot about the annuals, most pertinently #3!  So, I'll need to double back.  I had been thinking it strange that I'd missed the Reed-Sue wedding.  In my experience, comic book readers tend to be rather sentimental.  You don't believe me?  You must not have been around for all the fuss when Spider-Man got married.  As such, I couldn't imagine Stan and Jack would skip right over a wedding.  Wouldn't you know it, the nuptials are in Annual #3...

My Recent Reads

Fantastic Four #44
Originally Published November 1, 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
  • The Inhumans arc begins, though they are not named as such yet.
  • Nemesis: Gorgon
  • Medusa returns and we instantly realize her history is more complicated than previously suspected.  Gorgon is after her.
  • The Inhumans story even gets a satisfying secondary narrative.  Dragon Man is back in a King Kong-like tale with first Medusa, then Sue in the Fay Wray role.

Fantatstic Four #45
Originally Published December 1, 1965
  • We meet the Inhumans, Medusa and Gorgon inclusive.  Also in the gang are Crystal, Lockjaw, Karnak, Triton and the mysterious and powerful Black Bolt, revealed in the final frame. 
Lockjaw (comics) - Wikipedia
Lockjaw via Wikipedia
  • For Crystal and Johnny Storm, it's love at first sight.
  • Frank Sinatra reference!  This Grammy winner was also released in December 1965:

Fantastic Four #46
Originally Published January 1, 1966

Seeker | Marvel Animated Universe Wiki | Fandom
via Marvel Animated Universe Wiki
  • Villain: the Seeker. who is after all of the Inhumans, intending to return them to their sanctuary.
  • Inhumans origin story

Fantastic Four #47
Originally Published February 1, 1966

Maximus Boltagon (Heroes Reborn) (Earth-616) | Marvel Database ...
via Marvel Database
  • Villain: Maximus, Black Bolt's brother and usurper as both king and Medusa's betrothed.  I told you this was good!
  • Black Bolt reclaims his crown.
  • Maximus, in desperation, sets off the atmo-gun, threatening extinction to all human life. 

Fantastic Four #48
Originally Published March 10, 1966
  • First things first: #48 finishes the Inhumans arc.
    • Medusa proclaims her undying love for Black Bolt.
    • When the atmo-gun fails to destroy humanity, Maximus initiates a Negative Zone, designed to drive out the Fantastic Four and keep them out, along with the rest of Earth's humans, forever.
    • Crystal and Johnny are heartbroken by their separation.
  • The Galactus Trilogy begins.
Galan (Earth-616) | Marvel Database | Fandom
Galactus via Marvel Database
    • Villains: the Silver Surfer and Galactus
Norrin Radd (Earth-616) | Marvel Database | Fandom
Silver Surfer via Marvel Database
    • The imagery of the Silver Surfer is a nod to the prominence of surfing in the broader American popular culture of the 1960s.  Hawaii was a brand new state and the romantic allure of tropical beaches was potent.  California sun offered its charms as well, the Beach Boys not quite having revealed their more artistic side yet (Pet Sounds wouldn't hit record stores until May).  No icon symbolized young freedom and adventure better than a man on a surfboard. 
Uatu (Earth-616) | Marvel Database | Fandom
The Watcher via Marvel Database
    • The Watcher returns to help defend Earth from Galactus.
    • I chuckled out loud when Ben Grimm snarked about Reed's long-winded tendencies.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Star Trek: Elementary, Dear Data

Episode: "Elementary, Dear Data"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 2, Episode 3
Original Air Date: December 5, 1988
Data and Geordi play Holmes and Watson on the holodeck.  The cases are way too easy for Data to solve so Geordi challenges the computer to generate a character capable of defeating our favorite android.  The result is Moriarty, Sherlock's nemesis in the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories.  Fortunately, Geordi did not specify that the foil should be able to best Picard, too...

Now we're cooking.  To me, this is easily the best TNG episode so far.  The look of Victorian London is outstanding, drawing two Emmy nominations: one for art direction, one for costumes.  The episode is worth the time just to see Worf in period clothing.

Image result for elementary dear data worf
via The mOvie blog

I credit the screenwriter, Brian Alan Lane, for the story's success.  "Elementary, Dear Data" is Lane's only Trek credit and it's a great one.  Moriarty (Daniel Davis) is one of TNG's finest villains, charming yet deadly.  One gets the sense Dr. Pulaski doesn't half mind being kidnapped.  Moriarty accepts defeat graciously, though not with total resignation.  Due to rights issues with the Doyle estate, TNG wasn't able to air a sequel until Season 6.

Speaking of Pulaski, and following up on last week's post, I like the development between her and Data here.  In this case, her needling of him feels more like the good-natured ribbing of a friend.  Again, I credit the superior writing.

Acting Notes

Image result for daniel davis
via Gotham Wiki
Daniel Davis was born November 26, 1945 in Gurdon, Arkansas.  His most famous role is the butler Niles on The Nanny.  As both Moriarty and Niles, he affected a convincing English accent despite his natural, thick southern drawl.  In addition to his screen credits, Davis has had a long career on stage, including a Best Actor Tony nomination for Wrong Mountain in 2000.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Squid Mixes: Brandy Manhattan

My wife recently brought my attention to David Lebovitz's French Manhattan recipe.  While I expect we'll try it at some point, we didn't have all the ingredients on-hand (though our favorite liquor store is doing curbside service at this strange world moment).  I thought a Brandy Manhattan might be an acceptable alternative in the meantime.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide: brandy and sweet vermouth in 4:1 ratio, a dash of Angostura bitters and a cherry garnish.

The result was nice.  Brandy is sweeter than whiskey.  That's a given.  In fact, one wonders at the need for vermouth at all.  Might dry vermouth be more interesting?  Dry Brandy Manhattan recipes do exist.  I don't think I could ever go all brandy all the time but it is nice for variety from time to time.  We'll certainly try the French Manhattan another time.

Squid on the Vine

Poderi Cellario, Langhe Dolcetto 2018
A little sour
Cat pee
My Rating: 8.0

Bisceglia, Terra di Vulcano Aglianico del Vulture 2016
My Rating: 8.0

Foral de Melgaço, Vinho Verde Old Vines Alvarinho 2018
Starts with a bright peach, then fades to a light apple
An exciting little wine
I generally like vinho verde and this one had some nice dimension
My Rating: 8.4

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Winning Chess Openings

Title: Winning Chess Openings
Author: Yasser Seirawan

Winning Chess Openings: Yasser Seirawan: 9780735609150: ...
via Amazon

Back when I first discovered Seirawan's books in the late '90s, I started with Openings.  My problem at the time was straightforward: I didn't know how to begin a game.  I knew some general principles but lacked the tools to implement them, especially if my opponent should go off-script from the main line.  So, I needed a resource to properly dig into the subject and Seirawan's book was perfect.

And now, having read and re-read several of his other volumes, I feel confident saying it's the best one.  His introductory chapter provides a wonderful history of his own early journey in the game as well as a glimpse into what he projects as a charming, jocular and refreshingly self-deprecating personality.  With that first read, I liked him instantly, both as a writer and a person, the sort of patient teacher who would never shame you for your ignorance. 

Am I a better chess player now than I was 20 years ago?  Probably, though more practice over the years would have helped.  I do, however, understand more of what he's talking about now so even if I'm not a significantly better chess player, I am a better chess reader

Once Seirawan gets to the meat, he divides his openings study into seven chapters:  classical king pawn openings, classical queen pawn openings, modern king pawn defenses and modern queen pawn defenses, wrapping up with three chapters for his own recommendations in each relevant situation.  I understand his approach to each better than I did 20 years ago.  He builds the first three around the most studied main line: Ruy Lopez for the king pawn, Queen's Gambit Declined for the queen pawn and the Sicilian Defense for the modern king pawn.  The queen pawn defenses are more varied.  Through each, he digs into the significance of each individual move and also explores relevant variants.

His actual recommendations are decidedly unconventional: the Barcza Opening, the King's Indian Defense and the Pirc Defense.  For those of you who are not chess enthusiasts, each intends to protect the king before challenging for control of the middle of the board, the primary function of most opening sequences.  I have used all three in the years since and have been more or less happy with the results.  In the book, he also recommends the English Opening (1. c4 for the curious), though he doesn't analyze it.  No doubt an editor told him to stop already.

Fortunately, it looks I will get a chance to practice more soon.  A colleague is starting an online chess league at school in this new distance learning phase of our lives.  Teachers are playing, too.  Can't wait!

Monday, March 30, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: Fantastic Four #40-43

I'll admit it, I'm finding The Fantastic Four to be a tough slog.  You'll notice my issue count is down this week, despite social distancing.  Part of it is finding other interesting things to do, which is certainly a good thing.  However, I'm finding the series itself to be a bit tedious, especially compared with The Amazing Spider-Man.  Mind you, many of the problems I have with the FF are shared with the Spidey saga: the villain of the week, good guys always win formula becomes tiresome.  While there is more dimension to the heroes than there had been in the 1950s, there isn't much moral ambiguity with anyone, good or bad.  The Dr. Doom origin story in Annual #2 (see here) offers moments of sympathy for the guy but he went all in on the megalomania too quickly for it to last.
Marvel in the Silver Age: Women of Marvel: Sue Storm Part 1 - Fade Out
via Marvel in the Silver Age
Both series are also problematic when it comes to female characters.  This is not entirely surprising given the era.  However, the women in Peter Parker's life are the primary drivers of the more compelling threads in the Spider-Man stories.  Aunt May, Betty Brant, Liz Allan and Gwen Stacey are all more assertive and more nuanced than the FF's Sue Storm.  Sue has cool powers but is nauseatingly deferential to the others, especially Reed Richards.  She is certainly not an equal member of the Four.  The villain Medusa has a lot more backbone.
Medusalith Amaquelin (Earth-616) | Marvel Database | Fandom
via Marvel Database
Obviously, I don't have to stick with the series or the project at all really.  However, an important character introduction is coming soon: The Silver Surfer.  His solo series is the next stop on the Comic Book Herald tour anyway so I'd hate to miss the debut before moving on.  I might skip ahead, though.  There are surely other fun villains in store, too, but I could always come back.  We'll see.

My Recent Reads

Fantastic Four #40
Originally Published July 1, 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
  • Part 3 of a 6-part arc
  • Villain: Dr. Doom
  • Ally: Daredevil
  • The FF's powers are restored via Reed's power ray.
  • Doom is defeated but let go, Reed believing the wound to his pride is punishment enough.  Yeah, that line of thinking always turns out well in the long term...
  • The Thing is not entirely happy with his powers being restored.  If anyone gets an interesting story through this thread, it's Thing.  While the others enjoy being superheroes, it's a burden for Ben Grimm, just as it is for the Hulk and, eventually, Wolverine.  He is understandably a bit resentful of Reed for essentially making the decision for him this time.

Fantastic Four #41
Originally Published August 1, 1965
  • Part 4
  • Villains: The Frightful Four
  • The Wizard uses an "Id Machine" to convert an already bitter Thing to the Dark Side.  Oops, wrong franchise...

Fantastic Four #42
Originally Published September 1, 1965
  • Part 5
  • The Human Torch is turned to The Frightful Four's cause as well!

Fantastic Four #43
  • Part 6: the finale
  • Apparently, the Id Machine didn't actually work on the Torch and he's been faking his allegiance.  So clever.
  • The Frightful Four are defeated, though Medusa escapes, her feminine allure too much for young Johnny Storm to look past at the consequential juncture.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Star Trek: Where Silence Has Lease

Episode: "Where Silence Has Lease"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 2, Episode 2
Original Air Date: November 28, 1988
Curiosity kills the cat, and sometimes puts the Enterprise in great peril as well.  Data picks up an unusual reading, an area of total emptiness - no matter, no energy, nothing.  As the ship moves closer to check it out, our heroes are caught in what is essentially the mouse trap of a superior being, Nagilum.  The entity is curious as well, planning to kill half the crew just for sport.  Having no intention of subjecting his crew to prolonged suffering, Picard goes all in, setting the ship to self-destruct.  Is it a bluff?  Probably.  We still have over five seasons to go.

Most of the story is fairly tedious, I feel - just one more superior being putting humanity to the test.  As in The Motion Picture, there is way too much time devoted to shots of worried crew members staring at the view screen.  But it is a decent development episode for Picard and also for the Pulaski-Data relationship, one of the more important themes for Season 2.

Jean-Luc Picard is a bona fide badass.  His calm in facing down Nagilum is one thing.  His ability to sit back and be philosophical about impending death while the self-destruct clock is ticking is quite another - Macbeth-worthy.  Regular readers have already likely caught on but I am firmly in the Picard camp for the Kirk v. Picard debate.  This is the sort of episode that clarifies that choice for me.

I have difficulty warming to Dr. Pulaski and her dismissive attitude towards Data is the reason why.  Witness the following exchange:

PULASKI: Isn't this impossible, sir? I'm not a Bridge officer, but. Increase by one thousand, Mister Data. By ten thousand. It does know how to do these things, doesn't it?
PICARD: Commander Data knows precisely what he is doing.
PULASKI: Forgive me, Mister Data. I'm not accustomed to working with non-living devices that. Forgive me again. Your service record says that you are alive. I must accept that.

I realize Pulaski eventually comes around to respecting Data but their early interactions remind me of an old pearl of wisdom: if someone is kind to you but rude to the waitress, she is not a nice person.  In other words, Pulaski is only considerate when she has to be.  This may be oversimplifying the situation but it still rubs me the wrong way.

Acting Notes

Image result for earl boen
via The Disney Wiki

Earl Boen (Nagilum) was born August 8, 1941 in Pueblo, Colorado.  His biggest role was Dr. Silberman in the Terminator franchise.  He is the only actor besides Arnold Schwarzenegger to appear in each of the first three films.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Squid Mixes: Sazerac

I got my Sazerac recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide: bourbon or rye with Pernod, sugar, Angostura or Peychaud's bitters, water and a lemon twist.  I chose rye and Peychaud's.  In fact, the latter was the initial inspiration for the drink.  We've had a bottle for a while but I don't think I'd actually used it yet - not that we were able to taste it much.  The Sazerac is named for the brand of cognac which served as its original base liquor.

The Pernod, an anise-flavored apéritif, was definitely the dominant flavor even though there's only a scant amount in the mixture: a mere half-teaspoon against three ounces of whiskey.  We're not big black licorice fans so a little bit of anise goes a long way.  The drink was enjoyable, though definitely strong.  The preparation is a bit fussy.  One coats the glass with the Pernod before adding anything else.  One must muddle the sugar, too, which is tedious.