Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's all Geek to me!

My magnus opus first appeared on HerCanberra on the great day The Avengers premiered. Even though the movie has been out for months I just had to share it here too!

It’s all Geek to me
In a few days an event takes place that geeks the world over have waited for with baited breath. We’ve had hints and teasers for the past four years, all building to this, the literal tour de force uniting an elite team of superheros, The Avengers!

The true at heart have been rewarded for their patience of staying to the very, very end of the credits of Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America, with clues about the next instalment dangled in front of us, the crumbs we’ve needed to sustain us through the long, long months to the next film. Some of those films might not have been the best stories, but it’s been like stamp collecting, you have to see one before you can go to the next.

If it seems I’m speaking a foreign language, I’ve put together a guide to bring you up to speed. So come and take your first lesson in Classical Geek 101…

 The Avengers

I’m talking of course about the heroes of the Marvel comic series, not the campy 1960s British TV spy series staring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, although I’m awarding you an extra geek point if that was your first thought.

The British TV series appeared first, going to air in 1961, but in those dark and isolated days of pre-Internet communication (I shudder remembering how primitive it was) the creative teams in Britain and the US worked separately.

The Avengers of the comics brought together a super force of heroes in September 1963, who had already appeared in their own comic titles. The original gang was made up of Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, the Wasp and the Hulk, with Captain America joining a few editions later.

The film version changes this line up a bit, poor old Ant-Man and the Wasp haven’t made the grade and in their place you’ve got The Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Time for a superhero rollcall, so we can introduce…

…Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Junior), the man who delivers sarcastic quips and missiles from inside a sleek red and gold flying metal suit. When asked in The Avengers trailer what is he without his protective suit, he answers “A genius, billionaire playboy philanthropist.” That says it all really!

…Thor (Australia’s own Chris Hemsworth, who got his start in Home and Away), the hammer wielding Norse god of legend, with muscles on his muscles. He’s big and golden and rather uncomplicated, as you would be if you lived in the heavenly realm of Asgard and were worshipped for at least a thousand years.

…Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), first appeared in Iron Man II as Tony Stark’s new assistant, but was in reality an agent of US government agency S.H.I.E.L.D.

…Steve Roger/Captain America (Chris Evans, who played another Marvel superhero Johnny Storm/The Torch in the not-so-fantastic Fantastic Four films), a scientifically enhanced World War II soldier who was presumed dead after battling a Nazi-mutant baddie. Resurrected after being encased in ice for sixty years, he not only has to battle super villains, he has to deal with a world that’s changed beyond recognition.

…Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker), an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and master archer, who appeared in one scene of Thor, when he had to be prepared to take down the rampaging Norseman with an arrow.

…Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton who had in turn replaced Eric Bana in the 2008 reboot of The Incredible Hulk), a genius scientist who, because of exposure to gamma radiation transforms into a monster when enraged or excited. He’s already found out it’s kind of hard to keep relationships going when you might turn into a big green destroying machine.

And if that wasn’t enough for you, you’ll also get Samuel L Jackson reprising his role as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury, who’s been coordinating the Avenger Initiative since his clandestine appearance in the last 10 seconds of the first Iron Man film. And he’s more kick-arse than the rest put together!

But isn’t The Avengers just another superhero film?

No, no and no. All because the credits will carry these magic words: “Written and directed by Joss Whedon.”

Joss Whedon, the man who brought us Buffy The Vampire Slayer is at the helm of what has to be his dream come true. The man is the geek world’s uncontested deity, creator and ruler of the Whedonverse where many of us have whiled away our time.

20 years ago Whedon was a young scriptwriter who came up with the idea that maybe the cute blonde girl that walks into a dark lane doesn’t have to get axe-murdered, and can instead be the hero of the story. That led to a campy movie that fell far short of his ideals (but one I really really enjoyed), so far in fact that he walked away from the production and concentrated on fixing up other people’s scripts.

A few years later he had the chance to revisit his heroine and explore her fate on the smaller screens of TV, and so for seven years audiences watched Buffy struggle with her destiny to stand against vampires and demons while trying to be a normal teenager. Long before Stephanie Myers was penning vampires that sparkled in the sun (you have no idea how nauseated I feel writing that) Buffy’s struggles became more complex when she fell in love with Angel, the vampire cursed with a soul, then with one time enemy and later ally, Spike. Buffy saved the world one last time on our TVs in 2003, even dieing a couple of times in the process. Today she and her friends live on in comics published by Dark Horse and overseen by Whedon.

And this is one of the reasons why fans are both clapping their hands with glee about The Avengers, but also being a little fearful.

You see when Whedon is good he is very, very good. Seasons two and three of Buffy were ground breaking for TV excellence. Season 4 had some rough bits but was still very good. Yet by Season 5 Whedon had started to pull back, going off to explore new projects, and the quality of Buffy suffered. At the time of Buffy he was also working on its spin-off series, Angel, and a completely new concept, Firefly, a sci-fi Western that sadly only lasted a season. The latter had such promise that in a strange reversal of the 'Buffy movie, followed by Buffy TV series' formula, he was able to finish Firefly as a film, Serenity.

The man is incredibly prolific, just before making The Avengers, he filmed Cabin the Woods, a horror film that promises to redefine that rather tired genre. It even has Chris Hemsworth before he was Thor.

Then, when filming for The Avengers was wrapped up, rather than going and getting some sleep like a normal person, he managed to film a version of Much Ado About Nothing in 12 days, in his home. Sure the script was already done but, even so, it takes a dedicated storyteller to go from one to the other.

Whether you’re a fan of Shakespeare or Whedon (the two names sit comfortably together for me), this will be one to see. It stars many of Whedon’s former cast members, Amy Acker and Alex Dennisof from Angel as sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedict, Nathan Fillion from Firefly (and of course Castle) and Fran Kranz from Dollhouse.

Whedon’s loyalty to his actors is one of the things I like most about him, when Firefly wrapped up prematurely, he brought cast members over to Buffy and Angel, playing them completely against type from their previous roles.

It’s rather like the tradition of rep theatre, with actors touring in a company together, and in Whedon’s case there seems to be an informal family. I really wish I could be invited to one of their family dinners.

Will there be vampires in The Avengers?

It’s very, very unlikely, although Marvel does have a vampire hunter on its books, Blade. He had his own trilogy of films a while ago starring Wesley Snipes. I haven’t heard any Internet gossip that he’s appearing, although it could be totally AWESOME if he sneaks in.

Instead The Avengers will be a group of superheroes going up against another Norse God, Loki, Thor’s adopted brother. It’s business as usual for most of the players but very personal for Thor, so that’s going to create enough tension.

And considering this is a group of people whose personalities shouldn’t be in the same room let along the same fight, and there is bound to be plenty of trademark Whedon wit and snippy asides.

You’ve mentioned comics, don’t you really mean ‘graphic novels’?

Let’s get this one out of the way. Comics are stories told through drawings and dialogue bubbles that appear in monthly, serialised format of around 35 pages each.

Each edition tends to be part of an overarching narrative, much like a TV series is divided into seasons. Once a particular story arc is finished, each part of the serial is combined and published as an entire volume. These are called trade paperbacks, it’s a printing term that refers to any oversized, soft covered publication. They are not graphic novels.

Graphic novels do exist, but they aren’t written or designed to be published in serial format, they are like any other novel, you get the entire story at one go.

If someone with a comic in their hands tries to tell you they are reading are reading a graphic novel, you know they are just trying to sound cooler. Instead they just sound a bit pretentious.

True comic aficionados won’t correct you, instead they’re more likely to explain in fine detail the story line, artwork, pencilling and lettering detail until your eyes start to glaze over. I recently did just this to someone who innocently asked me what I was reading.

I currently collect five comic titles a month, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With Joss Whedon distracted by The Avengers, the comics have suffered, but to me bad Buffy is still better than no Buffy. For now anyway, I reserve the right to change that opinion and in some issues it’s been touch and go.

Are comics only about superheroes?

I tend to stay away from superhero comics, no matter how socially progressive they’ve got over the last sixty or so years or how many strong female characters they include, I still maintain that it is utterly impractical for said strong female characters to fight crime in high heels and low cut leather leotards lacking shelf support for their amble chests. Because they always seem to be very ample-chested, must be a mutation of some kind.

If you think you might get interested in superhero comics, and can overlook the impracticality of those female costumes be warned, there is another pitfall. It is very, very hard to just pick up a comic and understand the continuity. The superhero genre is constantly being revised and tinkered with, just when you think you’ve got the backstory and motivations under control, the writers take an entirely different path and re-cast the whole story, often making the hero a completely new character all together. This is how in comic parlance you end up with entire decades of a completely different continuity, often described as the Silver Age (1950s through to the 70s) and the Modern Age (1985 to now).

Added to that are the movie adaptations, that are often a bit of all established story lines and then some extra new stuff thrown in for good measure. It’s a bit like mythology, Roman and Greek myths can have many variations of a similar story, so maybe comics make up the mythology of our societies, always evolving to tell stories that are relevant and exciting. Even if they’re not, that’s a line you could always trot out in the ticket queue for the next superhero flick.

But superhero comics are just one strand of a very large selection. My friends at Impact Comics tell me they unload half a tonne of comics every week. Every week, 52 weeks a year. That’s a lot of comics to choose from. There are supernatural stories, TV shows like Star Trek and Dr Who, Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and classic novels like Pride and Prejudice in comic form. And if that wasn’t enough to choose from there are even comics about Barack Obama! 

If you’re interested but feel overwhelmed not knowing where to start, you’re in luck. The annual Free Comic Day is on the first Saturday of every May, this year Saturday 5th May. You can head to Impact Comics in Garema Place or Dee’s Comic in Belconnen and pick up some specially released free samples.

The big comic publishers like Marvel and DC tend to release special introductory comics of their big titles (particularly if there’s a movie coming out), but you can also pick up some titles from smaller and independent publishing houses to whet your appetite.

You’ll see zombies are very, very popular right now, and have overtaken vampires in pop culture, but with one main difference, no one wants to snog a zombie! The vampire as tormented romantic hero is still safe for a little longer.

And they all lived happily ever after…

If superheroes don’t appeal, you might be interested in a variation on fairystories. There’s a series I collect called Fables. The premise is that the characters we know from our beloved children’s stories actually come from a realm of magic, in worlds that resemble our medieval history. Over the centuries they’ve had to flee their homes to escape a vicious conqueror, known only as the Adversary, who invaded and enslaved their various kingdoms.

Humans, talking animals and even anthropomorphic objects (like the dish and the spoon from the nursery rhyme) have secretly sought refuge in our world, that although it’s void of magic, has somehow picked up on their presence and recorded their histories in stories.

Today they live in Fabletown in a section of New York protected by spells. The characters are all adults, except for poor Pinocchio who was turned into a real boy by the Blue Fairy and almost a thousand years later remains has never grown up, much to his ever-lasting ire.

Their personal stories all have twists on the ones we think we know. Prince Charming has been married to and divorced by Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

Cindy is herself Fabletown’s covert spy, helping keep them safe from the enemy forces of the Adversary. These days the Big Bad Wolf, Bigby for short, can still be big and bad when it comes to defending his community, but is also the besotted husband to Snow White and father of their seven cubs.

The series takes all kinds of twists and turns, and is not for children, there are some very adult themes and content. The series started in 2002 and is available in trade paperbacks that are all in stock.

I’m fairly certain the success of Fables has a lot to do with the current spate of fairystory films and TV shows gracing our screens. Screening at the moment is the very entertaining Mirror Mirror, about Snow White and her evil stepmother, and not far away is another version, Snow White and the Huntsman (starring Twilight’s Kristin Stewart and Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth).

And if that wasn’t enough the TV series Once Upon A Time is being advertised, about a small community of people who don’t know they are in fact the fairy tale characters of old.

Oh mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest fairy story of them all? Time will tell.

Is your brain overloaded yet? Maybe you need a doctor? Doctor Who?

Depending on your age you may, like me, have fond memories of weeknights spent watching The Goodies, five minutes of Danger Mouse and then the main attraction: Dr Who. Yes you’d settle down to watch someone you really wished was your eccentric uncle running around time and space in a blue police-call box with a motley assortment of friends. At one point there was even a robot dog that would have made THE BEST PET EVER because you’d never have to feed it or give it a bath.

The Doctor and his friends disappeared from our screens at the end of the 1980s, although he did make an ill-considered return via a TV movie where he went up against Eric Roberts as his evil nemesis. It wasn’t good.

He returned in his TARDIS in 2005 for one hour stories each week, each episode stand alone but part of a 13-episode series. There have been three actors playing the Doctor since then, and next year the show notches up its 50th anniversary.

The Daleks are back but this time they get to fly in the skies, and other old villains crop up regularly like the Sontarans and the Cybermen. In the last series we’ve had a frightening group of villains called The Silence, who look like Muntch’s famous screaming figure.

We’ve recently found out that they are not a species but are in fact a religious order, determined to kill the Doctor. They believe the universe will end if a certain question is asked. As for the question, head writer Steven Moffat, along with staff writer Mark Gatiss have taken the problematic syntax that has plagued obsessive fans for decades (including the 10th Doctor, David Tennant, who is said to have lobbied the BBC to change the name of the show to simply The Doctor) and made it into the central mystery of the next season: Dr who?

Here’s my final question, what does it take to make you stop?

Okay, that’s a fair question. Let me just say thanks for sticking with me this far, you can tell I get a bit excited about all of this. And I haven’t even touched on comic conventions, action figures, manga or the other elements often associated with being a geek. Some would argue I’m not even a true geek since I abhor online gaming like World of Warcraft and I don’t have an X-box.

What I do have is a deep love of stories well told, and that’s what I love about comics. Don’t be put off by the sneers of the ill informed, the pages of the humble comic contain narratives as well told and as exciting as any New York Times best seller.

If you do see The Avengers and you enjoy it, I really hope you’ll consider popping down to your nearest comic store and checking out what else is on offer.

Impact Comics,
Dee’s Comics,

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