Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lettering is a bitch.

Lettering comics is much more trouble than one would think. In terms of "underratedness," if that is even a word, lettering comes in right below inking in the comic book process. In a visual medium such as comics, the letters themselves become part of the artwork, a vital piece of the entire aesthetic puzzle. Since our eyes take in the entire panel at once, bland, static lettering can be just as detrimental as lifeless inking or uninspired pencils. It is up to the letterer to provide the punch and emphasis as conveyed in the script. If the writer is the brains behind a comic, then the letterer is the voice.

In the old days, artists like Sam Rosen or Art Simek would painstakingly write each and every word by hand. Today, companies like Blambot and Richard Starking's ComicCraft use Adobe Illustrator and a multitude of fonts, often based directly on the handwriting of the old masters, to put words in our favorite character's mouths.

I'm writing this at 3:30 in the morning as I rush to finish lettering my latest comic strip. I'm usually extremely careless when drawing the artwork, forgetting to leave ample room for word and thought balloons, thus having to alter my script (or shrink the art) as a result. On the one hand, I'm well aware of my laziness, and on the other, I realize that nobody reading the strip would give a shit, and at a kingly five bucks a strip, I'm just not getting paid enough to kill myself over stuff like this. Oh well.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Stuff and Nonsense (Comic Con)

Midway through writing my "10 Coolest Costumes" bit, I was feeling a bit deflated knowing that maybe four people tops would be reading it. So, on a whim, I sent it to comics guru Scott Tipton over at one of my favorite sites, Comics 101. To make a short story even shorter, he offered to post it on the site as a Guest Lecturer article. Needless to say, I was (and still am) completely and utterly JAZZED about the whole thing. My piece should be up sometime this week, but in the meantime, check out the site. It's a veritable hog heaven for geeks like us, with comics, movies, and wrestling coverage galore. I'll hopefully be able to do some more articles now and then. I already have my concept for the next one; I just need to find the time to do it, what with my soul-crushing-yet-extremely-lucrative summer job. Ironically, once summer is done with and school starts I will have a lot more free time, so expect a lot more updates here as well.

In other news, once again the San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone, and once again I wasn't there. True, I only just recently experienced my first convention, Wizard World Philly, this year, but I always feel so left out in the wake of all the gushing news coverage from the Big One. I'm going to try and get out there next year, as I think I'm ready to graduate from the farm league of comic book conventions. Some of my favorite bits of news from the Con:

Spider-Man 3

No real earth-shattering news. Sure, we got our first glimpse at Venom and whatnot, but I think everyone pretty much knew he was coming. Most of us haven't even seen that brain-eating bastard in all his symbiotic glory yet, since the only image Sony released to us civilians is a picture of Topher Grace in mid-transformation:

Pretty cool, nuh? The Con-goers got to see quite a bit more, as the teaser footage ended with the Lethal Protector (shudder) lunging and snapping at the camera, which was met (as all things down there seem to be) with thunderous applause. Sadly, the only version of this footage online is a shaky fan-cam file on Youtube. While I've heard some rather disconcerting rumors regarding the Sandman and his ties to Peter Parker's past, I trust in Sam Raimi to bring the same respect and reverence to the table that made the first two Spidey films so special.


So Peter Cullen is going to voice Optimus Prime, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, right? This is a bone, people. Michael Bay is throwing us a bone so we will look the other way as he piddles all over our favorite Robots in Disguise. I have no illusions about the Transformers in their original incarnation. They were a bunch of cool toys from Japan accompanied by a poorly made cartoon cash-in. Even so, they somehow managed to transcend their original commercialized shackles and actually become something special, thanks mostly in part to the endearing characters and the phenomenal voicework of Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, the late Chris Latta and Scatman Crothers, and the rest of the Transformers cast. There are people who genuinely love these robots, and it's a crime that some slick Hollywood hack like Michael Bay has come along and swept all that aside to make the movie he, not the fans, wants to see.

Optimus Prime? Now he's got bitchin' flame decals on his alt mode. Bumblebee? Well, Volkswagen wouldn't allow him to be a Beetle, so now he's going to be a Camaro purchased by Shia LaBeouf in an attempt to get laid. The names of various Autobots and Decepticon are being arbitrarily assigned to robots with no regard to the original characters at all, and the movie seems to be focusing on the humans much more than the titular Transformers. Sure, I'm still going to see it, since while I like the Transformers, I really don't have the same emotional investment as I do with, say, Spider-Man. The changes will probably cheese me off, but I'll be able to live with them as long as I get to see giant robots beating the crap out of eachother on the big screen.

Iron Man

Not much in the way of actual information about this project, but from everything I've read so far, director Jon Favreau seems to really understand this project. He's created a Myspace account to talk directly with the fans, to share ideas and hear their opinion. It's very refreshing to see a director who understands that, while he has to make a movie that appeals to the masses, he also has a responsibility to the fans, without whom there would be no reason to make a film.


Man, remember when John Woo was supposed to do this? That guy's name gets attached to more properties than Quentin Tarrantino. Still, Woo or no Woo, a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie sounds pretty cool. A "vague sequel" to the first two theatrical films (there's a lot of that going around...), the new CGI flick is supposedly going to be much more down-to-earth than the recent animated series, which started off great but eventually caved in to the marketing silliness that plagued the original incarnation of the Turtles. The trailer is exciting, and the character designs are top notch.

Still, they don't hold a candle to the original Jim Henson Company costumes from the first live-action movie.

The Simpsons Movie

I was surprised to find out that there was a panel showing clips from the Simpsons movie at the Con, and even more surprised to find decent quality fan-cam footage online. The clips were only in rough storyboard form and, sadly, I wasn't much impressed with what I saw. A big, unruly Springfield mob was storming the Simpson’s house out for Homer's blood. Not to sound like the Comic Book Guy here, but it was almost exactly like the mob scene in episode 2F06, "Homer Badman." Actually, the whole clip seemed like it could have come from any given (later seasons) episode of the show. I was kind of hoping for a more epic and cinematic feel to the direction of the animation, but I suppose that can't really be seen until the final product.

There was much, much more news from Comic-Con that I'm not posting here, of course. The upcoming Ghost Rider and 300 films both look promising, and I really can't wait to see Edgar Wright's Ant Man. However, those five little rants up there are all I really have to say about the Con, aside from the fact that I hope to God I can get out there and make my pilgrimage next year.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Top 10 Coolest Superhero Costumes

An undeniably enormous factor in the success or failure of any new superhero is the look. With comic books being the extremely visual medium that they are, a flashy and memorable costume is often just as, if not more important than any of the powers, pathos or personality exhibited by a fledgling new hero. I've seen several online lists of the worst superhero outfits of all time, from the living encyclopedia Scott Tipton's to the slightly less informed but equally hilarious Something Awful's, but as far as I know there isn't a ranking of the coolest. I aim to rectify that situation.

A word now on "coolness." As admittedly one of the most un-hip human beings to ever shuffle across this mortal coil, I'm probably the last person who should be talking about what is "cool" or not. Thankfully, however, when it comes to superheroes, the definition of cool is flipped upside down. Cool isn't wearing jeans with holes in them or a pre-faded pink shirt. Comic book style rewards the gaudy and grotesque, with bright colors and off-kilter designs that would land someone in a mental institution if worn in everyday life. "Loud", "cheesy", "unrealistic" and "corny" are words often used to describe superhero costumes. I prefer the term "classic", myself.

This is not going to be a list of "greatest" costumes. Superman and Batman do not appear within this page. This is by no way an indication that their outfits are any less than the seminal, mold-setting threads that they are. Without Superman there would be no superheroes at all, let alone superhero costumes, and Batman's cape and cowl defined the brooding, tormented dark hero look that is so prevalent throughout the genre. Unfortunately, these uniforms are so iconic, so ingrained in our society's hearts and minds, that they have long since left "cool" behind and entered the realm of Americana. It might be argued that some of the entries on this list, particularly my choice for number one, have also been engraved on the public consciousness to the same extent. It is my opinion, however, that despite their saturation and status, the costumes pictured here remain some of the most visually striking, ingeniously designed articles of fictional fabric ever spun from newsprint and ink.

Honorable Mentions: Firestorm, John Byrne's navy and white Fantastic Four, Mr. Miracle, the Question, Dr. Strange, Daredevil

10. Wolverine (Astonishing X-Men)

Debuting in 1974, the adamantium-enhanced mutant Wolverine was initially bedecked in a bizarre yellow costume, complete with blue trunks and whiskers(!) painted on his facemask. Upon joining the X-Men, artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne refined the outfit into a much more appealing design, although it seemed overly cheerful for the deranged berserker who wore it. Eventually, an orange and brown uniform was introduced which, although it fit the character much better, didn't have the same "pop" that the classic one did. After a few years, artists began to switch back and forth between the two, a matter of personal and editorial preference.

Shortly after the release and surprise success of the first X-Men film, in which the X-Men were portraying wearing stiff, awkward, Matrix-inspired black leather costumes, the editors of the comic book decided to follow suit. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely designed a new set of school uniforms for their groundbreaking New X-Men series, which while not as bland and boring as the movie outfits, were still a far cry from the unique and colorful costumes that X-Men fans had grown accustomed to. After Morrison's excellent 40+ issue run came to an end, Marvel almost immediately began to retcon away every innovation and storyline from the last three years. Morrison has always been very hit and miss for me, but the sheer amount of ideas and creativity he exhibits have made me a fan. One of the only elements from his tenure I was glad to see nixed were the clunky leather uniforms.

By 2004, the character was no longer the irredeemable, irresponsible wildman he was when he first began. He had mellowed somewhat, in part due to experience, but mostly due to his popularity. Marvel couldn't have a murdering psychopath as one of their flagship characters, so for better or for worse, the Wolverine was tamed. A return to the much-maligned "yellow spandex", as it was derisively referred to in the first movie, was in order, but not without a redesign. Artist John Cassaday took the tired old look and revamped it for the new millennium, without sacrificing any of the original elements that made it memorable in the first place. Gone were the corny blue trunks and the big black floppy boot flares. Two stripes of blue traveled down the sides of the uniform, terminating around the knees and eliminating the need for the unsightly "underwear on the outside." Yellow indentations occupy the spaces once inhabited by black slash-like stripes. Every piece of the costume has been pared down and streamlined into an excellent and memorable look for one of the most recognizable characters in the industry.

9. Kid Flash

When Wally West first appeared as Kid Flash, the faithful sidekick and nephew of DC's scarlet speedster the Flash, he was outfitted in an exact copy of his mentor's costume. Smaller, yes, but otherwise identical. As some artists had a tendency to drawn children and teens with the same build and shape as adults, it often became difficult to tell him apart from the Flash himself, unless they were standing next to each other. Eventually, Wally received his own distinctive outfit. It was worth the wait.

After toiling away wearing a second-rate rip-off for so many years, Kid Flash burst back onto the scene in one of the best-designed costumes ever. The red legs and yellow boots pay tribute to the design of his namesake, while the yellow torso and red gloves give the young hero an identity of his very own. Topped off with a new mask which left his red hair exposed, complimenting the yellow perfectly, that even when Wally West fulfilled the promise and took the mantle of the Flash himself, the outfit would eventually live on with Bart Allen (pictured), who dumped the so-so name and costume of "Impulse" and is currently speeding through the DC universe as the new Kid Flash.*

*There is currently a lot of confusion and status shifting when it comes to Bart, as a result of Infinite Crisis. I haven't really kept up on DC, so I'm not really aware of what's been going on with him. Last I knew, he was Kid Flash, so that's what I'm going to stick with.

8. Iron Man (Mark VIII Armor)

It's almost a given that any list of comics "best dressed" has to include at least one of Iron Man's many armors. The question isn't "should Iron Man be on this list" but rather "how many times" and "which one should we use." There are so many classics to from with to choose, from Jack Kirby's original grey (and later golden) avenger, to the Steve Ditko designed red and gold classic, or even the modern, more mech inspired affairs. For my money, the coolest by far is the 1980's Mark VIII armor, which is arguably second only to the classic in terms of fame.

By now you may have noticed a pattern to my critiques, a common element which has shown up in the last two choices on the list, that of stripping away what doesn't work and getting to the bare essentials. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Iron Man redesign of the 1980s. Arriving on the heels of the ugly-as-sin "Silver Centurion" armor, the Mark VIII eliminates all of the clunky and unnecessary embellishments that had accumulated over the years. The hip discs, belt line and chest details have all gone by the wayside, leaving an elegant, simple design that is still unmistakably recognizable as Iron Man. The segmented sections of the gauntlets and legs have been smoothed out, so that they now resemble armor moreso than gloves and boots. The torso, formerly a solid, all red affair, is now accented with two yellow strips on the sides, giving it a slight resemblance to the costume of a certain friendly neighborhood wall crawler. Lasting a respectable four years, this sleek, shiny ensemble is the first that comes to mind whenever I think of Iron Man.

PS: "In space, no one can hear you DIE!" is one of the greatest cover blurbs I've ever seen. Right up there with "Spider-Man no more!" in my book.

7. Classic X-Men

No matter what your opinion is on the various incarnations of the X-Men over the years, one thing is for certain: They've never looked cooler than when Stan and Jack were at the wheel. In those days, the X-Men were a team. First, foremost and above all else, they had to function as a well-oiled machine in order to survive. In those days, there were no Wolverines or Storms to steal the spotlight and hog all the glory. In their early year, the "strangest superheroes of all" needed to live, train, learn and battle as a single unit. Their classic "school uniforms" helped lend a sense of unity to the group, and they looked damn snazzy as well.

Kirby, at his best, worked from two different philosophies when it came to designing costumes. Sometimes he would go completely off-the-wall, giving us such intricate and bizarre creations as Galactus or Mr. Miracle. Other times, the King would take a more simplistic approach, which resulted in the utilitarian but no way less classic Fantastic Four uniforms. The original X-Men were obviously a result of the latter method. The workmanlike but eyecatching X-Men uniforms are the standard upon which all super-team costumes should be based. Even to this day elements of the original outfits are still prevalent in the current X-costumes, from Cyclops' cowl to Kitty Pryde's extremely familiar yellow and navy getup. Great designs never die. They, like the mutants they adorn, continue to evolve.

6. Green Lantern

When I first began this article, I was worried it would seem like an exclusively "Coolest Marvel Costumes" list. While, as an unapologetic Marvel Zombie, I would seem slightly biased towards the House of Ideas, even a True Believer such as myself would have to admit that the Distinguished Competition has come up with a few knockouts of its own.

(The preceding sentence has been brought to you by a lifetime of brainwashing at the hands of Stan Lee. Excelsior!)

Seriously, though, even if it means handing in my M.M.M.S. membership card, I will concede that there are plenty of DC costumes that are damn cool themselves. Firestorm... Kirby's New Gods... Hell, I even have this strange affinity towards Dr. Mid-Nite's outfit for some strange reason. I can't say that this entry is my favorite DC costume of all, as that honor belongs to one slightly higher up on the list (although, to be fair, that one did start out as a Charlton Comics character), but the fact is that costumes do not come much cooler than Gil Kane's 1965 revamp of the Green Lantern.

The original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, was decked out in a... flamboyant green red and purple affair that, while certainly not without merit, still didn't quite jive with DC's new sci-fi slant. Along with the Flash, the concept of the Green Lantern would undergo a complete makeover, from concept to costume. A drastic change from the standard "trunks, boots, chest symbol and cape" archetype, the new Green Lantern outfit was actually a uniform, worn in various incarnations by hundreds of beings across the universe. A streamlined green leotard with black circular accents around the shoulders, worn over an understated black bodysuit and topped off with a simple logo on the chest, the revamped Green Lantern costume helped jumpstart the Silver Age and defined a new direction for both DC and the entire comic book industry.

5. Phoenix

Ah, the (often) late Jean Grey. From your humble beginnings as Marvel Girl to your rambunctious Dark Phoenix days, you'll always be in my eyes the most attractive woman in comics, and no moreso than while wearing your original Phoenix outfit. Granted, it's kind of creepy when I'm talking about a fictional character who has been drawn in a hundred different ways in a hundred different artists, but there is just something about that green and yellow outfit that just makes everything click. Maybe it's the way the colors perfectly compliment her vibrant red hair, or how the golden belt sash provides a sense of flow and movement. Even when Jean gave in to her desires and became the Dark Phoenix, a mere palette shift was all it took to turn this costume into a vessel for evil and power personified.

Naturally, the film version of the Phoenix managed to completely miss the boat, giving us a Dark Phoenix who looked like she'd be more at home as a librarian at an elementary school, but I won't press on, as my dissatisfaction with the X-film costumes has already been well noted. I only have two more thoughts regarding the original Phoenix costume, and they are:

A.) The most alluring (in my opinion) female superhero costume of all is the one that reveals the least amount of skin, and

B.) Emma Frost ain't got squat on Jean Grey.

4. Invincible

If you would have told me that Image Comics, of all places, would give birth to one of the top three coolest superhero costumes ever, I'd have thought you were full of it. Image? The company founded by Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld? I was expecting a mess of gratuitous crosshatching, nonsensical anatomy, and superfluous pouches, belts and guns out the wazoo. What I found instead was one of the best-looking costumes showcased in the best new comic I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Robert Kirkman and Corey Walker have given us the best-written superhero story in a long time. In both spirit and tone, Invincible is closer to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's legendary Spider-Man run than anything Marvel has printed in the last ten years. Exciting, witty and. most of all, fun, Invincible also boasts one of the sharpest looking super-suits on the today. The Corey Walker designed costume, with it's unusual but striking yellow, black and blue color scheme, also incorporates a lowercase letter "i", standing for both Image Comics and Invincible. The "i" however, isn't encapsulated inside your standard chest symbol, but rather ingeniously suggested by the use of shapes and colors within the suit itself. Like the book itself, Invincible's costume is modern, sleek and smart. For my money, Invincible is the best new superhero, from both an aesthetic and character standpoint, created within the last ten years.

3. Black Bolt

Now, I know what you're thinking. Black Bolt? Black Bolt? As in... King of the Inhumans Black Bolt? You put Black Bolt higher than the Green Lantern?! You bet your sweet bippy I did. Black Bolt is pure Kirby, designed by an artistic genius at his creative peak. Pretty much any character/villain from the 102 issue Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four run would make a solid addition to this list. The Inhumans, in particular, are especially well-designed. Medusa, Crystal, Karnak, Lockjaw... Interesting characters, all, but none are quite as cool-looking as their reigning king, Black Bolt.

Just look at him! He just looks so... cool. Observe how the bolts on his chest run downward to seamlessly create the diamond at his waist, or how a simple line around each thigh helps break up the monotony and give the illusion of shorts. Top it off with a killer pair of silver wings, and you've got a look that just can't be beat.

The real reason I ranked ol' Blackagar so highly was to illustrate just how subjective lists like these can be. Black Bolt is a personal favorite of mine, but I'm sure many, many others would disagree. That's perfectly fine. Everyone has their own list, and their own reasons. Heck, I'm sure that at least one person out there would rank giant disco-collar Nightwing or anyone from X-Force higher than, say, Daredevil. As the late Mark Gruenwald once said, every character is someone's favorite. I'm sure this extends to costumes as well.

2. Blue Beetle (Ted Kord)

I'm not going to even pretend to be semi-apologetic about this one, like I was with Black Bolt. Ted Kord's Blue Beetle was one of the most dynamic, striking costumes of all time. Yet another Ditko design, the most eye-catching element of this outfit is the color scheme. Superhero costumes have traditionally consisted of sharply contrasting colors. Red and blue, black and grey, blue and white, and so on. The original golden age Blue Beetle wore red trunks over a plain blue chainmail getup. Ditko threw this completely out the window and decked his new hero in a cyan and cerulean combination of colors that were complimentary, not discordant, to each other.

Perhaps the most recognizable interpretation of this character was the chunky, bumbling JLI version. Say what you will about the characterization, which I personally loved, but it's hard to argue with Kevin Maguire's take on the costume. Refining the angular, Spidey-like goggles into circular lenses, Maguire also thickened and sharpened the black embellishments of the costume into sharp, square angles. I would even venture to say that Maguire drew the costume better than Ditko himself, and coming from a Ditko freak like myself, that's almost blasphemy. Ted Kord would wear this optimized costume right up until his completely unnecessary demise, a sore subject for me, and one that has already been sufficiently torn to pieces by the majority of comic book fandom.

Speaking of Ditko designs, it's impossible to mention the man's incredible work without giving props to his greatest creation of all. I'm talking, of course, about the amazing...

1. Spider-Man

I'm so tempted to just write "'nuff said" and leave it at that. Every single stitch of this costume just screams "cool." Almost every concept Ditko innovated in this design are still being ripped off every day. From the angular, opaque eyes to the way the gloves, shoulders and chest and all integrated in one smooth, flowing pattern, Spider-Man broke the mold when it came to coolness. I've read that Ditko always tried to design his costumes so that, even if a panel only displayed an arm or a leg, it would still be instantly recognizable. This is most evident in Spidey's case. With but a glimpse of the distinctive red webbing pattern that has been driving inkers mad since 1962, we are immediately aware that Spider-Man is on the scene.

Spider-Man's costume is unique in that it was designed within the story to be cool, at least in the eyes of its creator. Peter Parker needed to whip up a flashy costume for his big debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the end result really looks like something a 17-year-old nerd would sew together in his aunt's basement. Pete threw together some blue and red tights, spiderwebs attached at the armpits (!), a big corny spider on the back and a mask that left his face completely covered (presumably to hide the ravages of acne that are all too common during those awkward years), and somehow ended up with perhaps the second most recognizable superhero costume in history.

And yet, the powers-that-be are always attempting to change things. First was the black symbiote suit which, for better or worse, gave the world Venom. Some less famous but more putrid examples include the hideous "Silver Spider" armor, the wretched Scarlet Spider hoodie, Ben Reilly's decidedly "meh" revamp, and of course, "Iron Spidey," a truly ugly red and gold affair that is currently among that many factors rendering the current Spider-Man books unreadable. Inevitably, though, the classics persevere and things have a way of returning to the way they should be. We may still have to deal with organic webshooters and Sins Past for a while, but it's a safe bet that Spidey will be back to his red-and-blues before too long.

So, there you have it. One man's opinion on the coolest superhero costumes of all time. The mere fact that I was able to write so damn much about colorful spandex is a testament to the importance a costume can have on a character's impact. Again, this is only my opinion, and since everyone is entitled to one, I would love to hear yours. Leave a comment or e-mail me with your thoughts, your own lists, and your inevitable hate mail for leaving out Batman.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

ECW: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Of all the various phases, obsessions, and hobbies I’ve taken up and torn through over the years, there have been few that remained constant. Star Wars is one of them, comic books another. Professional Wrestling has also held a spot in my heart as long as I can remember, with varying degrees of ferocity. The flame burned brightest right around 1996-1997, culminating at Wrestlemania XII, when, as my friends and I gathered around the in retrospect not-so-big screen TV for my ninth birthday party, the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels triumphed over Bret Hart after sixty grueling minutes in the legendary Iron Man match. It was one of the greatest moments of my young life, and by far the apex of my interest in wrestling.

As the Attitude era dawned, my fervor began to fade, igniting one last time as the new millennium came around. I found myself captivated by Mick Foley’s struggle for one last run at the top before his impending retirement. After February 2000’s No Way Out, I left wrestling for good. Still, like a scorned lover, I couldn’t keep myself completely away. I checked in from time to time, just out of curiosity. I read the websites and scouted for news, never watching the shows but maintaining an awareness of them. It wasn’t the “sport” I lost interest in, just was the way it was being run.

When Vince McMahon’s WWF, now know as the WWE, purchased their floundering competitor, WCW, wrestling fans (including myself) were foaming at the mouth merely pondering the possibilities. Goldberg vs. Steve Austin… Sting vs. the Rock… The possibilities were endless. Unfortunately, all the dreams of the wrestling community went tits-up the second that Vince got his greedy paws on the company that had been such a bothersome thorn in his side for over ten years. Refusing to buy out the contracts on WCW’s larger stars, the much-vaunted “InVasion” amounted to little more than the WCW midcarders making fools out of themselves jobbing to the WWE guys. The opposition was portrayed as inferior, bumbling losers who didn’t belong in the same ring as the “WWE Superstars.” The only way that Vince could milk a pay-per-view main event out of the situation was by having several of WWE’s biggest stars “defect” to the WCW side. Eventually, one of these turncoats, Kurt Angle, was made the de facto leader of the team, a man who had never wrestled for any federation other than the WWE, especially not WCW.

This entire sordid little tale has already been told, to a much greater (and funnier) extent in R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez’s book The Death of WCW, so I’ll end my summary with a recommendation of the highest order for this book, an essential read for any wrestling fan.

Now, why did I just waste time recapping the death of WCW if it’s been done before? Why, to segue into my next point, of course! What is my point, you ask? Simple:

It’s happening all over again.

So as anyone who's ever worn an Austin 3:16 shirt is by now aware, ECW is making its triumphant return after five long years in wrestling purgatory. Extreme Championship Wrestling, as led by the genuinely maniacal genius Paul Heyman, was arguably the most groundbreaking and innovative wrestling federation of the 1990s. The vanguard of wrestling's maturity, ECW walked, crossed, and destroyed the lines of good taste and political correctness. Even with paltry production values, crude, obscene and borderline blasphemous storylines, and rabid, often brutal fans, ECW still managed to lead the new wave of wrestling away from the orange, steroid-addled showboats of the 80s and into the new millennium. For all of his brilliance when it came to booking a wrestling promotion, Heyman lacked the business and financial savvy necessary to keep afloat in a harsh and cutthroat business. Much to the dismay of wrestling fans all over the country, ECW declared bankruptcy and folded in 2001, with all of its assets and rights purchased by the WWE.

In a rare moment of lucidity, Vince McMahon realized just exactly what he was holding on to. Even after going went out of business, the ECW brand name still sparked an intense and positive response from the WWE fanbase, many of whom had migrated over after the demise of their favorite federation. The passion and dedication of thousands of frenzied followers chanting "ECW...ECW..." as they would catch a glimpse of the company's former glory was undeniable. In 2005, Vince gave the fans what they wanted. ECW: One Night Stand drew a sold out crowd and a phenomenal 2.0 buyrate (higher than 131 of the up to that point total 158 PPVs in WWF/E history), it was a no-brainer to assume that a full-blown resurrection of the cutting-edge federation was not far off. Another PPV was announced, once again titled One Night Stand. An oxymoron, to be sure, but the fans sure as Hell weren't complaining. Even if the entire extent of ECW's grand comeback was nothing more than a lone PPV every once in a while, the wrestling community would have been perfectly satisfied. As long as the matches and shows maintained their exceptional quality, the reputation and legend of the ECW name would live on, untarnished and perhaps made even more mythical for its scarcity and distinctiveness.

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Chief among Vince McMahon's (many) foibles is his tendency to take something that works and just run it into the ground, not knowing when to quit. This has proven an effective tactic in the past, with the incredible success of Degeneration-X and the rise to fame of Steve Austin and the Rock owing a great deal to Vince's overzealous promotion tactics. Even more often, however, the hype machine will blow up in his face, as was the case with Olympic strongman Mark Henry's WWE debut, the Rock's original "blue-chipper" gimmick, or even the original WCW "InVasion." The fans grew sick of the constant, overwhelming attempts to put these men and angles over before they had proven themselves in the ring, and responded with apathy bordering on anger. It would stand to reason, then, that Vince was not going to leave the incredibly lucrative ECW with one measly pay-per-view a year. He took the ball and ran with it. ECW was getting a weekly TV show once more.

In order to bring awareness to the new show, ECW wrestlers began to appear on the WWE shows. It soon became apparent that ECW was not going to be treated as its own separate entity. It was to become another brand in the WWE hierarchy, albeit one being run exclusively by Paul Heyman and his protégé, one of ECW's brightest stars in its heyday, the "Innovator of Violence," Tommy Dreamer. It was obvious that Vince still had his fingers in the pot. When the card for the 2006 One Night Stand PPV was announced, WWE wrestlers were to be in two of the main events, with ECW wrestlers Rob Van Dam and Sabu competing for the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship, respectively. The focus of ECW's big night was not to be the wrestlers who sacrificed, struggled and starved to stay afloat in the last five years. The spotlight was to shine on the WWE belts and the WWE wrestlers, leaving ECW and its rabid fans to sulk in the darkness. As if this indignation wasn't enough, Vince still had one more all-too-familiar trick up his sleeve.

Allow me to indulge in a bit of backstage wrestling history. In 1996, Olympic gold medalist (not yet professional) wrestler Kurt Angle was convinced to attend an ECW show, High Incident. Amicably enough, he provided commentary for a match before settling back to take in the rest of the program. Unfortunately, High Incident was also the night of the infamous "crucifixion angle," in which the deranged mastermind Raven used barbed wire to string hardcore hero the Sandman up onto a wooden cross.

Angle flipped out. As he recounted on the WWE produced video The Rise and Fall of ECW, he confronted owner/booker Paul Heyman and threatened him with legal action if his name was even mentioned on the same show as the crucifixion. His actions, though perhaps a tad extreme, were nonetheless understandable. Still, with all this in mind, would you consider Kurt Angle to be ECW caliber? Do you think he would be a good choice to lead the pack and uphold the hardcore, rule-breaking, innovative mentality that ECW pioneered?

Vince McMahon does.

In an almost eerie parallel of the WCW InVasion, Kurt Angle, the man who wussed out when the fledgling promotion gave him a chance 10 years earlier, was drafted to the ECW brand and soon became the most prominent member in the faction. Once again, the man who had been with WWE for his entire professional career was to be the face of an outside, invading force. This was never more blatant than during the June 7th TV special WWE vs. ECW, an event in which 10 wrestlers from each side battled in a Royal Rumble styled match. After starting out rather evenly, with both WWE and ECW stars being eliminated at a fairly even rate, the WWE soon began to build an advantage. Within minutes, all but one of the ECW wrestlers had been eliminated. Who was left? Which warrior would remain to battle for the honor and pride of the company for which he had fought and bled?

Kurt Angle, that's who.

After eliminating the leftover WWE superstars, Angle stood in the ring victorious, though not alone. He was accompanied by another wrestler who had just seconds earlier turned his back on the WWE to become another member of the ECW faithful, none other than the Big Show, Paul Wight.

Yes, that's right. In yet another bafflingly unprecedented (and unneccesary) move, the Big Show, maybe the only wrestler with fewer ties to ECW than Kurt Angle, was going to represent the brand in its rebirth. This made even less sense. At least Angle is a popular, charismatic and talented worker. Wight is just... large, and has never really caught fire with the fans. Only time will tell how they will take him as part of the second coming of ECW.

When I began this entry, One Night Stand 2006 had not happened yet. It is now 3:00 AM, Monday and the PPV has come and gone. I haven't actually seen it, but I have read the results and learned that Rob Van Dam has won the WWE Heavyweight Championship. Some might see this as a validation of ECW's return, that it gives the brand some weight and credibility. I beg to differ. Giving RVD the title is a calculated, pandering move. The ECW of old didn't need the boost from an established belt. In the days before the revolution, when it was still called Eastern Championship Wrestling, Shane Douglas was awarded the NWA World's Heavyweight Championship, maybe the second most important belt in the country. He did not revere it or cherish it. He didn't hang onto it. He didn't defend it. Shane Douglas threw it on the ground and proceeded to cut one of the best promos the industry has ever known. Those 10 pounds of gold represented the old way, the dead way. The second the belt hit the bloody, sweat stained mat, ECW was born, and with it an entire new perspective on the art of professional wrestling. Extreme Championship Wrestling may have returned in name, but its spirit, which shined brightly and briefly, can never be rekindled.

Monday, June 05, 2006

X-Men 3: Where Fandom Failed

My sentiments regarding X-Men: The Last Stand, or X3, are far from unique. Dissenting comic book fans from all around the world have voiced their displeasure over the latest in a long line of Marvel movie missteps. And yet, despite all the negativity spewing forth from frustrated fanboys such as myself, the movie has somehow raked in an obscene amount of money since its release. Granted, it has also experienced one of the sharpest week-to-week dropoff in movie history (a whopping 67 percent), but this still does not change the fact that this piece of puerile pap, this cinematic carrion, is a bonafied hit.

(I apologize for the excessive alliteration. I've been on a Stan Lee binge lately, and I find myself unable to keep from imitating his charmingly bombastic style, so face front, True Believers, and bear with me for the remainder of this rambling rant.)

The only explanation for X3's success lies in the ignorance of the general populace. To Freddy Fratboy and Sally Sixth-grader, the X-Men represent nothing more than the awkwardly leather-clad gang of misfits presented in the films. There is no concept of their uniquely convoluted history, none of the pathos introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, nor the depth and resonance that Chris Claremont and John Byrne brought to the comic books. The X-Men have become pure popcorn fluff, movies to be watched, enjoyed, and immediately forgotten. There are feeble attempts to introduce the allegory upon which the entire X-Universe is based scattered through the films, but these are lost to the vast majority of moviegoers who refuse to look past the laser beams, lightning bolts and claws.

Now, don't get the idea that I didn't enjoy the first two movies at all. Far from it. I appreciated X-Men for simply bringing the mutants to the big screen in the first place, albeit in a somewhat bastardized form, and I could see the seeds of greatness within X2, just waiting for the opportunity to bloom into a truly satisfying third film. I wasn't entirely happy with some of the choices director Bryan Singer had made, particularly concerning the costumes and the horrific treatment of my favorite character, Cyclops. Still, his heart was in the right place and his admiration, if not respect, for the source material was readily apparent. So, when it was announced that Singer was leaving the franchise to do Superman Returns, and uberhack director Brett Ratner had been signed in his stead, I was more than a little wary. Then, like a hammer pounding the final nail into the X-Films franchise coffin, a script review appeared on Ain't It Cool News. It wasn't pretty.

Rumors had already been rumbling around actress Halle Berry, who played the weather-manipulating mutant Storm, and her dissatisfaction with her perceived lack of screen time. Like an angry little child in a sandbox, Berry threatened to quit and take her toys home with her if the studio and screenwriters did not give into her demands. Storm, who's lack of recognition and success in the previous films can only be attributed the Berry's bored, amateur performance, was to be shoved down our throats whether we liked her or not. It was only a question of which character would be the one to suffer at her expense. AICN's script scoop confirmed what X-fans had been suspecting for some time: Cyclops was toast.

Scott Summers, codenamed Cyclops, is the heart and soul of the X-Men and the glue which holds the team together. From the very first issue in 1963 to Joss Whedon's current blockbuster run in Astonishing X-Men, Cyclops has been has been portrayed as an utterly loyal, trustworthy, capable and steadfast leader. He isn't the "darkest" character around, he doesn't run all over creation slicing people apart or blasting them with enormously phallic Rob Liefeld laser cannons. He simply does his job, protecting a world that hates and fears him. Why is it, then, that the X-films have completely thrown this character to the side? In X-Men, sadly his finest on-screen portrayal, he was little more than a second banana to Wolverine. In X2, Cyke was unceremoniously captured barely 15 minutes in and was thus absent from the rest of the film. That is, until he finally emerged with twenty minutes left to battle Jean Grey as a mind-controlled henchman. In X3, he dies. Within the first quarter of the movie. And absolutely none of the characters care.

It's a little-known but true fact that the original X-film was, for a time, going to be called "Wolverine and the X-Men." As ludicrous as that sounds, it's actually a far more accurate description than the actual title. From the very moment the rights were sold, there was little doubt that the movies would focus primarily on the ol' Canucklehead. And why not? He is far and away the most popular character, and to not have him front and center would be both a financial and artistic mistake. However, Wolverine's "push," to speak in wrestling terms, should not come at the expense of the other characters, particularly those who have been X-Men (in the comics) for far longer. The extent of this favoritism even spread to the books themselves, as evidenced when artist Alan Davis was recently asked to kill off Cyclops within the pages of the comic. His reply came in the form of a sketch:

There is no place that the utter disrespect for Cyclops, and indeed the X-Men in general, is more prevalent than in X3, and it's so called "adaptation" of the legendary Dark Phoenix Saga.

The Dark Phoenix Saga, as it appeared in X-Men #129-138 by Claremont and Byrne, is still regarded as one of the most captivating and complex comic book storylines of all time. It is a tale of corruption and redemption, addiction and despair, love and sacrifice. In a nutshell, Jean Grey, lover of Cyclops, has found herself as the host of an unthinkable cosmic essence, the Phoenix Force. With seemingly limitless power at her fingertips, she begins to experience sensations and feelings that in her wildest dreams she had never thought possible. Soon, Jean, now calling herself the Phoenix, begins to crave this power like a junkie craves a fix. Already unstable, a number of unfortunate circumstances and outside influences push Phoenix over the edge, and she casts aside her earthbound shackles and human conscience to become the Dark Phoenix. She attacks and nearly kills her closest friends, menaces her family. Overcome with an insatiable hunger for power, she flies into the heart of a nearby sun, consuming it and dooming billions of inhabitants on an orbiting planet.

Thanks to Professor Xavier, Jean comes to her senses just long enough for her, along with the rest of the X-Men, to be beamed aboard an interstellar starship by a race of birdlike aliens, the Shi'ar. Long story short, the X-Men are forced to do battle with an elite squad of superpowered extraterrestrials on the surface of the moon, the Dark Phoenix resurfaces, and upon being reminded of the love she once shared with Cyclops, she regains her humanity long enough to destroy herself, saving her friends, her loved ones, and ultimately the entire universe.

Sounds just like X3, right?

Now, granted, there are elements of the original story that would never work in the more realistic universe portrayed in the X-films. I doubt that the mainstream audience would find the concept of mutants battling alien gladiators on the moon anything but absurd. Still, the core concept of the saga is pure enough to be translated onscreen in a feasible way, if the filmmakers treat it with the respect it deserves. Sadly, that didn't happen.

Throughout X3, we are told of the awesome power of the Phoenix, that she is an entity capable of unfathomable destruction. But we are never shown it. Sure, we see the Phoenix disintegrate some soldiers, an army barracks, and even Professor X himself, but the incredibly mundane way in which her powers are presented suck any sense of terror and awe from the spectacle, and we are left with a zombie-faced woman standing around while dust swirls around her. The brilliant firebird, the blazing Phoenix raptor that has come to signify the character and her cosmic presence is nowhere to be found, even after showing up in the final seconds of X2! The movie Phoenix spends most of her time as a silent henchwoman, content to mill around, glare menacingly and take orders from Magneto, who, as performed by Sir Ian McKellen, was one of the few bright spots in this otherwise dreadfully dull film. In the end, instead of coming to understand that true love is an even greater power than the Phoenix and nobly taking her own life, Jean is impaled by Wolverine as he hacks and slashes his way through her disintegration field. What could have been a truly poignant moment is thrown away in exchange for a gruesome special effects scene as Wolvie's flesh is torn from his adamantium bones while he endeavors toward his goal.

I could go into the myriad of other problems I had with the film, from the ridiculous gimp Juggernaut to the criminally underutilized Colossus, but it would be pointless. X-Men: The Last Stand was a disappointment in every sense of the word, save perhaps financially, and that is the biggest disappointment of all. The filmmakers and producers treated this property with nothing but disrespect and contempt and were rewarded with one of the biggest opening weekends in history. The movie studios now have free reign to tramp all over out beloved characters and stories, since, according to the box-office, the true fans do not matter. Mainstream America, it seems, is fully content with a washed-out, diluted and bland version of what comic fans have come to know as a dynamic, engaging franchise. One can only hope that in five or six years a talented young director will reinvigorate the franchise in the same way that Christopher Nolan revived Batman. Until X-Men Begins comes along, however, I'll have to keep myself satisfied with Singer's upcoming Superman Returns. As an unabashed Marvel Zombie, it almost pains me to say this, but from what I can tell it looks every bit the movie that X3 should have been.