Monday, November 27, 2006

Convention Find #1- Ghostwatch

Most Americans are familiar with Orson Welles’ broadcast of the War of the Worlds on some level. At the very least, they know that it fooled a lot of its listeners into thinking it was real, and caused a panic. What most of us on this side of the Atlantic don’t know is that Britain had its own Halloween panic- in 1992.

So- picture this. It’s Halloween eve, and you’re settling in to watch a program about “The Most Haunted House in Britain.” It’s being filmed live, with Michael Parkinson in the studio, Sarah Greene in the house, and Craig Charles outside interviewing neighbors and providing comic relief. (Parkinson is well-known in Britain as a talk show host and celebrity interviewer- think of a combination of Tom Brokaw and Phil Donahue. Sarah Greene worked in children’s programming, while Craig Charles is best known as Lister from Red Dwarf.) The documentary is called Ghostwatch and within a few hours it will become the first TV show ever to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in children. It will also be banned from British TV for over 10 years.

So, what’s the fuss all about? In a nutshell, we learn of the Early family- divorced Mom Pam, and her two young daughters- teen Suzanne and 10-year-old Kim. They live in a row house in which they’ve been experiencing poltergeist phenomena, which they credit to “Pipes”, because the ghost first made himself known by banging on the plumbing. Through interviews with the Earlys and their neighbors, we learn of the legend of Mother Simmons- a 19th century nanny who lived in the area (perhaps right where the Earlys' house is now) and murdered several young children.

Pipes’ activities, at first, were pretty harmless- noises and such. As time went on, however, and things started getting more violent, Mrs. Early appealed to the Council to let them move to another house. The Council, finding no bylaws against poltergeists, refused, causing her to go the media with her complaint. This is how their story came to be used for the program.

We see some pretty interesting documentary materials from a psychiatrist’s examinations of the Early girls. Photos of scratches that appeared on Suzanne’s face, and a tape recording of the teen apparently possessed by the spirit of Pipes and speaking in an impossibly deep voice. There is also a videotape of the girls sleeping in their bedroom, culminating in an episode of things being hurled through the air and the children running out, screaming.

As the night goes on, we witness a few more paranormal events, although the most chilling one- involving strange knocks- seems to be a hoax by elder daughter Suzanne. In the studio, the hosts share ghost stories, interview skeptics and scientists, and take calls from the viewers. The viewers’ calls start getting stranger and stranger as they report paranormal events happening in their own houses, while at the Earlys’ house, the phenomena get stronger and more violent.

A social worker in the viewing audience calls in with some information about previous residents of the house. In the 60s, an elderly couple who lived there took in their mentally disturbed nephew, who had just been released from a psychiatric hospital where he had been confined for child abduction and molestation. The man claimed he was being possessed by the spirit of a woman, and had, in fact, started wearing dresses. One day, while his aunt and uncle were away on holiday, he killed himself by walking into the storeroom, where his tools were kept, tying one end of a length of wire around his throat, the other end around a lathe, and turning on the lathe. He wasn’t found for twelve days. During that time, his dozen or more cats, locked into the house with him, got hungry... and went to work on his face.

At the Earlys’, a strange wind is picking up, with the sounds of cats yowling mixed in. The attacks on the girls increase in violence, so the family and crew try to evacuate. We see Mrs. Early and the younger girl, Kimmy, make it out. In the house, Sarah and a camera man are looking for Suzanne- in a house now without lights, of course. She is heard calling from the store room. Sarah opens it, and despite the pleas of the camera man, reaches in to try and find her. She is jerked into the store room, the door slams shut...

In the studio, it's chaos. Lights are exploding, the winds are getting worse, floor supervisors are yelling for people to evacuate... and the screen goes black.

After a moment, one camera comes on, revealing a disoriented Parkinson wandering the set. He finds the one working camera, and notes that the teleprompter is operating, but only nonsense is showing. He reads it: “What big ears you have... what big eyes you have... fee fi fo fum, fee fi fo fum...” and as his reads, his voice deepens to the guttural tones of Pipes. Cut to black as cats yowl.

And then come the credits. You mean this was a work of fiction?

By this time, a lot of viewers in Britain were freaking out- the show seemed all too real. Michael Parkinson was a respected and well-liked talk show host, as was Sarah Greene for her work in Blue Peter. There were quite a few chilling moments in it, and there was something vaguely disturbing about those stories about Pipes.

I’d read about this show not to long after it aired, thanks to Fortean Times magazine- a British publication that covers strange phenomena. I really, really, really, wanted to see this show, but at the time it seemed hopeless. How was I going to see something that would never be aired in Britain again, let alone shown in America.

Time went by, and I forgot about the show until I visited a dealer’s table at a Chiller Convention. There it was- $20 for a DVD of the broadcast! Appropriately enough, I made this purchase right around Halloween 2002, the 10th anniversary of the broadcast. I got home from Chiller that night, to my condo where I lived alone, and popped the DVD in as daylight faded, and my living room got dark.

I started out watching the show with all the lights off, but I had to turn them on after about 30 minutes, and the lights stayed on all night. I knew the show was a work of fiction, but it still creeped me out- I can’t imagine how an unsuspecting audience would have reacted to it.

But what made it so scary?

First off, I think it starts off very believably, as most of what happens is low-key. Pipes’ voice is genuinely disturbing, and you get a few “Gotcha!” moments to make you jump. But there was something more...

It wasn’t until I started searching the internet that I found out what that something was- there are about 8-10 instances where Pipes is subliminally inserted into the picture. Most of the appearances are only 2 or 3 frames long, which mean it’s hard to get a good look at him even with a DVD’s ability to slow down and stop. In addition, rather than splice in a few frames of Pipes by himself, as was done with the demon faces that are spliced into The Exorcist, Pipes shows up in the background while the action is going on. He’s there too briefly to consciously register, but he does register. And I’m glad it’s only a subliminal shot- I saw a website that showed the actor playing Pipes in make-up, and all I can say is it’s a very disturbing make-up that he’s in (remember- the cats got to him before his body was found).

The show kind of goes off the rails towards the end as the studio starts going crazy- it’s an over-the-top ending for what the somewhat low-key and subtle scares of the first part. In a way, though, it’s good because the ridiculousness of the end lets you laugh a little and let off some of the tension the show generated.

It’s a shame the only official release of the show is a Region 2 DVD because I think there would be an audience for it in America, too. As it is, though, if you’re a geek you can probably find it pretty easily at comic or sci-fi conventions, or you can probably locate a copy on eBay. It’s definitely worth it.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Geek Monthly #1- A Review

I can see the pitch meeting now (if magazines have pitch meetings)- a young entrepreneur has an idea for a new magazine. “Video games are more popular than ever. Every kid has a computer now. Movies and TV shows based on comic books top the charts. Everything that used to be considered geeky is now cool. We think the geek market is the next big thing, so we want to put out a magazine devoted to them.”

Magazine executives mull it over, and greenlight the project.

Some time later, young entrepreneur brings in the mock-up of the first issue and eagerly awaits comments.

When he gets his prototype back, it has comments like this attached to it: “You know- it’s a little too geeky. We don’t think the average teenager or college student would be interested in things like this. Perhaps you can ‘cool it up’ a little. Add some women, or articles on sports. Try to make it more like Maxim.”

Entrepreneur thinks about protesting, but then decides it’s better to publish a watered down version than no version at all. And Geek Monthly is born.

I order my comics through a service, and this magazine was a new offering from them, so I decided to give it a chance, and ordered the first issue. It took me all of an hour or two to read through it, and I was pretty much disappointed the whole time. Although it claims to be a magazine by geeks for geeks that celebrates geek culture. I’ve always considered myself a geek (I am an electrical engineer, I collect comics, I’ve memorized and can quote large chunks of Monty Python and The Simpsons, I make it a point of honor to complete every videogame I buy, and am something of a trivia master), so I figured I’m its prime demographic.

Yet this magazine did nothing for me- it broke no new ground, nor did its articles ever really convey the essence of geekdom. Here are some examples of articles in this issue: “Cool websites,” “Trek for Dummies- 10 Essential Episodes of the Original Series,” “A Defense of Woody Allen,” a fashion spread set in an arcade, and the obligatory comic book, movie and video game reviews. Are there any real geeks out there who have not heard about Or who need someone to tell them which episodes of Star Trek to watch?

The articles themselves are pretty shallow- one is a two-pager in which the author goes to the University of Florida and asks students what their definition of a geek is. Surprisingly, it seems most people consider geeks to be people with no social skills or fashion sense, and who like things that the cool kids don’t. Wow! Penetrating insights there.

Frankly, given the shallowness of the writing, and the subject matter, it seems as if the magazine is Maxim or Stuff without the women (although it does have a sidebar titled “The Top 5 sci-fi bellies,” featuring luminaries like Princess Leia in the slave suit.). (And the cover of issue 2 features Scarlett Johannsen and her cleavage, so it seems the mag’s probably going to be a lot more Stuff-like real soon.)

I’m not sure who this magazine is truly meant for- it seems to be aimed at people who want to be geeks, but need to ease themselves into it. (Sort of like how American Idol is for people who want to listen to rock, but are a little afraid of actually, you know, rocking out.) Are there people out there who are worried they’re not geeky enough?

Maybe in the pre-internet days, when there were small pockets of geekdom across the land that had no good ways to communicate with each other to create a geek nation this would have been helpful. It would have let the geeks know there were others like them with the same interests, and could helped them expand their own horizons. But anyone with internet access already knows Superman is a dick, or that there is a new Battlestar Galactica on TV, or “Spock’s Brain” was an incredibly lame episode of Trek, or that HP Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos.

My guess is this magazine won’t make it past issue 6. And I certainly won’t miss it when it’s gone.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Captain Marvel Junior

As superhero comics grew in popularity, and more comics started crowding the shelves, publishers needed to find new ways to attract readers, most of whom were kids. One bright man at National (later, DC) comics decided that although Batman was popular, kids couldn’t identify with him- they needed someone their own age in the book. Thus, Robin was born.

And, as they had done after Superman’s debut, rival publishers rushed to copy the formula. Captain America had Bucky, the Human Torch had Toro, Green Arrow had Speedy (which always confused me because I thought someone named “Speedy” would team up with the Flash), and, in a novel twist, the young hero Star Spangled Kid had a grown-up sidekick named Stripesy.

With the exception of Robin, these sidekicks never really achieved the same level of popularity and name recognition of their grown-up counterparts. And with the exception of none of them, they were all inferior versions of their guardians.

Well- there was one exception- Captain Marvel, Jr. And with the first volume of The Shazam Family Archives, DC has finally released a deluxe volume of his adventures. (Technically, the Shazam Family also included Mary Marvel, but her first appearance is the last story in the book, so I guess she’ll have a bigger presence in subsequent volumes). Anyway- back to Cap, Jr.

Freddy Freeman was out fishing with his grandfather one day when the rescued a man who appeared to be drowning. Little did they know this man was the evil Captain Nazi (hey- it was WWII, who else would he encounter?) who was just lost a fight with Captain Marvel. Captain Nazi quickly recovered, drowned the old man, crippled Freddy with a blow from an oar and made off with the boat. Luckily, Captain Marvel was nearby and, hoping to save the boy’s life, he took Freddy to the wizard Shazam. Shazam saved Freddy, and also bestowed upon him superpowers. All Freddy would have to do was say “Captain Marvel” and he would be transformed into Captain Marvel, Jr. (Which also meant that he could never say his own name without turning back into Freddy.)

Junior took up residence in Master Comics #23 (Feb. 1942), and got his own title the following November. At the beginning, he was drawn by Mac Raboy, one of the true greats of the era. He had a great style, with lots of fine linework. His use of photo-references enhanced the realism and grittiness of his art, which was a definite contrast with the much lighter style CC Beck employed on Captain Marvel’s titles.

And the tenor of the stories reflected the difference styles. Teenaged Billy Batson (Cap’s alter ego) worked for WHIZ radio and had a pretty nice house of his own. Crippled Freddy Freeman (Shazam gave him superpowers, but couldn’t fix his leg) was a paperboy who lived in a depressing attic in a rundown neighborhood. Cap’s arch-enemies were Dr. Sivana who tended to be more naughty than evil, and Mr. Mind, an intelligent worm. Junior had to deal with Captain Nazi (who definitely would kill the kid if he had the chance), Mr. Macabre (who apparently was Fawcett’s Joker wannabe), and lots of kidnappers. Freddy always seemed to be in a lot more real danger than Billy was.

What’s great about Junior is that he could hold his own against really scary villains. As I said earlier, you had the feeling that if Captain Nazi ever managed to get the drop on him, Junior was toast. But Junior always made it to the end of the story. I don’t think Batman would have ever let Robin even contemplate going up against the Joker by himself. And Junior’s powers were probably pretty close to Cap’s own levels. He might have been a kid, but he was a serious contender.

The only problem with this volume is that, at this early stage, Junior had a limited rogue’s gallery- there are 15 stories in the book. In these 15 stories, he fights Captain Nazi 5 times, and Mr. Macabre 3 times. Although he does go up against the Japanese air force in one story, he spends most of the rest of the stories fighting street hoods. For example, in “Case of the Cripple Crimes,” Freddy is taken in by Dr. Krool and Prof. Swype, two Fagin-types who teach orphans how to pick pockets. The artwork is very nice, the story dark, but these two criminals are definitely outclassed by Junior.

I like the fact that Freddy’s youth, poverty and physical limitations are used to good effect to get him involved in cases. More than once he is put into situations where he is in real danger. But once he turns into Captain Marvel Junior, he is way too powerful for most of his foes, and the dramatic tension goes away.

Still, to get back to my original point, Cap Junior made a great junior-league hero. While I have a hard time putting up with the Golden Age Robin even when Batman’s with him (and Robin was still more appealing than Bucky Barnes), I am enthralled by Junior’s adventures.

And I’m not the only one who felt that way. Apparently, a young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi was a huge fan, going so far as to style his hair in the same manner. And when he got a little older, and a little richer, he had clothes modeled on Junior’s- right down to the cape and a lightning bolt on his belt buckle.

That boy?*

*Think I'm kidding? Check this out-