Monday, June 25, 2012

La Guerra de los Mundos, a Spanish War of the Worlds comic

There have been plenty of War of the Worlds comics over the years adapting either the original novel, referencing the Orson Welles radio play, or indeed striking out in new and novel directions, for instance Killraven and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it has always seemed notable to me that there was not one single adaptation to be found of the iconic 1953 George Pal War of the Worlds movie. Well, how wrong I was. There is indeed such a comic, but I had to look to Spain to find it.

Oddly, this unique adaptation does not hearken back to 1953 when the movie was first released, but to several decades later, in 1979. The four part story was published by Editora Valenciana, a company based (not unsurprisingly) in the city of Valencia. Editora Valenciana was founded in 1932 and unfortunately is no longer in business, but until it’s closure in 1984 it released a wide range of titles, from reprints of American comics such as Batman and Superman, to home produced hits like Roberto Alcázar y Pedrín, a massively popular detective series co-created by the founder of Editora Valenciana, Juan Bautista Puerto.

La Guerra de los Mundos is a 4 part, 64 page series in full colour throughout. The artist and one presumes writer is one Michael Lucas Rafael Catala, who went by the penname Karpa. Karpa is well known in Spain for his work on the long running series Jaimito, which looks to be something along the lines of Dennis the Menace (the US version) or Archie and another very popular juvenile humour title called Pumby. La Guerra de los Mundos therefore seems a bit of a departure for him.

La Guerra de los Mundos was very clearly produced with a copy of the movie close to hand, as the plot cleaves pretty close to the script, though with more action inserted into the battle scenes. The covers are striking, though unrepresentative of the interiors, as their bombast does not transfer to the actual strips, and unfortunately a lot less care seems to have been taken in general with the interior art. Perhaps it’s just me, but it looks rushed and rather sloppy, though this sketchy approach may just be the accepted Spanish style, and so perhaps I am judging too harshly.

However, when you look from issue to issue, consistency in the facial features of characters does seem very lax.  The likenesses of actors such as Gene Barry and Lewis Martin are sometimes pretty good, though Ann Robinson fairs less well, but Barry’s face morphs alarmingly from issue to issue, from cover to cover, and sometimes it seems page to page. I’d go so far as to say that the first issue is by far the best in terms of faithfulness to the look of the film, and things get more and more rushed from there on. The colouring is particularly poor, though perhaps the printing process is to blame, or the artist was under deadline pressure, but no matter how many excuses I offer up, I have to be honest and express my disappointment at the production values on show here.

Make no mistake, I’m delighted to have this in my collection, but there’s clearly room for someone to take another shot at a comic book version of the 1953 movie. In closing, I wonder, did Paramount know about this comic book series? There is a copyright on the back covers to a Gofer Films, which does seem to have been an active distributer of various foreign film and television properties in Spain at the time, but it would be interesting to know if Paramount head office gave their blessings.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Ivor Montagu's unfilmed War of the Worlds

I was recently privileged to hold in my hands the treatment for an unproduced War of the Worlds script from approximately 1932. The detailed story of how this came to be written is explained in my recent article for SFX magazine, but briefly, it was the brainchild of a British film director, writer and producer by the name of Ivor Montagu, who had tried to entice Paramount into mounting an adaptation to be helmed by the Soviet direct Sergei Eisenstein. When the project collapsed, Montagu had returned to England and with his business partner Frank Wells, the son of H.G. Wells, tried to get the project up and running with an English studio. Of course posterity records that this too failed, but the treatment left behind, a flimsy yellowing sheaf of papers held by the BFI in London, is a rare and wonderful thing to read.

Immediately apparent is the boundless ambition of the script. Montagu is not one to be unduly restrained by the apparent limitations of special effects at the time, though he does admit that filming the battle between the Dreadnaught Thunderchild and the Martian Tripods would be a stretch, preferring to show only the evacuation by sea. “A finish like this will give us sufficiently the impression of the fight taking humanity right off the map and the Martians pushing the population into the sea, with necessitating the use of any of those model shots in the sea required by the Thunderer incident, which it is feared would lack realism.” But that doesn’t stop him crashing biplanes into Tripods and in a radical but quite logical departure from the original novel, imagining an actual underground resistance movement against the Martians, greatly expanding on the delusions of the lone lunatic artillery man imagined by H.G. Wells in the original novel.

The treatment begins with a lone observer in an observatory witnessing a jet of flame leaping from the surface of Mars. Though the newspapers pick up the story, it is considered a “silly season” story and a “Music hall joke”, and soon forgotten. We are then introduced to our hero Drage. H.G. Wells chose to keep his narrator anonymous, but in a perfectly reasonable departure from the original novel, Montagu provides him with a name and also a new profession. He is a doctor, and as we meet him, he and a female friend (a medical student) are concerned with the health of a child, so concerned in fact that the fiery descent of a “Falling Star” is all but ignored. The next morning however Drage is awoken by a neighbour, Ogilvy the Astronomer, who conveys him to the fallen star and there discovers it is a great cylinder. Here a crowd gathers and the Martians unleash their heat ray, killing first a peace delegation and then turning the weapon against the onlookers.

With communications cut, the London papers take the silence as confirmation that nothing untoward is happening in the provinces, but the Martians are swiftly on the move and with the army routed, the capital is thrown into turmoil. The descriptions of the advancing Martians are truly compelling and you can’t help but imagine what a black and white film of The War of the Worlds would have been like. Would we now think it quaint and laughable, or would Montagu have risen to the challenge of realising the potential of his script. “Rising against the horizon, approaching, coming nearer and large, tremendous, threatening, the flashes of lightening gleaming on their metal cowls and giant metal limbs, approach two Martians.”

Montagu doesn’t flinch either from showing the brutality of the Martian invasion. Witness these descriptions of the aftermath of Martian attacks: “Broken and melted with heat, a bicycle, gripped by a hand” and in his garden, the grisly discovery of carbonised bodies exposed in flashes of lightening and on his travels across a devastated country, “the body of the old woman swirling on the surface of the hole left by the Martian foot.”

But there is also a clear ambition to do more than shock with visceral imagery. There are some memorable moments of lovely descriptive prose and a clear enthusiasm to use the evolving medium of cinema in creative ways, such as a Bee buzzing into sky which transitions into a plane, and then this brilliantly realised moment of violence, witnessed at a distance, yet powerfully and poetically emotive: “The wheeling planes. Suddenly, one, two, three, four, five together, six, seven, eight, nine – in turn each is transformed with a tiny distant sound to a puff of smoke and flame, and down, down, whirring, one, two, the others, down they come, tumbling, down in rocket curves of smoke one after the other, gathering speed and sound as they fall.”

Yet there are also moments of humour. When Ogilvy ponders on the origin of the first cylinder, he muses that “the metal looks to be extraterrestrial”, to which a reporter asks, “Would you mind spelling that?” Then when the first Martian emerges from the cylinder to the consternation of the journalist, there is another moment of levity. “Breaks in the voice of a village policeman, clambered to the top and pausing, helmet off, to wipe his brow. "Now then, what’s the matter, come on what’s the matter?"”

In the latter half of the script, Drage falls in again with the artillery man who is now involved in a growing resistance movement based in the sewers, whose waters are now running crystal clear with the population dead or fleeing for their lives. In a superbly gripping scene, the resistance attempt to set off bombs beneath the Martians, but the Martians anticipate the plot and pump rivers of fire into the sewers. Unfortunately, this important document - a 3rd draft - provides the reader with only a partial view of the story, with many sections simply alluding to unseen sections of earlier drafts, but even with this incomplete picture, you can’t help but feel cheated that this remarkable vision of The War of the Worlds was never made.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Topolino e la Guerra dei Mondi - Mickey Mouse and the War of the Worlds!

Yes, it’s strange but true; Mickey Mouse really did fight the Martians in an Italian comic book version of The War of the Worlds, though in Italy he’s better known as Topolino. Introduced into the country in 1932, the title’s first publisher Mario Nerbini swiftly found himself in trouble with Disney’s Italian representative as he had neglected to adequately secure the rights, necessitating a temporary change of title and a hastily retooled look to the character. However, with the rights issue duly settled, the title settled back to Topolino and the character was restored to his recognisable Disney look, but then in 1935, rival publisher Arnoldo Mondadori personally persuaded Walt Disney that his company should take over the licensing for the character. Mondadori set about changing Topolino to a pocket size publication, (previously it had been published in a large newspaper format) and transformed it into a massive success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies a week at the height of its popularity.

Topolino has been in almost continuous publication to this very day, with only a short enforced hiatus during World War 2, and has featured a great deal of work produced by local writers and artists. One of the most renowned and well respected series created specifically for the Italian market has become known as the Grand Parodies, of which Topolino e la Guerra dei Mondi is a recent addition. Begun in 1949, the first of the Grand Parodies was quite extraordinarily the l'inferno di Topolino, an adaptation of Dante’s Inferno, which mind-bogglingly translates as Mickey in Hell. In subsequent issues, Mickey and his pals would find themselves transported into many other classic worlds; Donald Duck was marooned uponTreasure Island, Uncle Scrooge journeyed to the Centre of the Earth and Pluto explored the Call of the Wild.

Topolino e la Guerra dei Mondi was published across two issues on January 18th and January 25th 1987, (numbers 1625 and 1626) and is a surprisingly faithful 59 page adaptation of The War of the Worlds, though of course it has been heavily Disney-fied and the more disturbing elements of the story expunged; I don’t think anyone actually wants to see Goofy hideously disintegrated or Minnie Mouse exsanguinated of blood, though on second thoughts, Disney re-imagined in the style of David Lynch would certainly be a fascinatingly subversive experience.

The story begins with Goofy seeking out Mickey in great excitement to announce his new interest in astronomy. The two friends meet up later at Goofy’s observatory and are witness to a series of explosions on the surface of Mars. Goofy wonders if the Martians are attempting to communicate, but Mickey finds the idea funny and suggests it is probably just a volcano. Next day however, Goofy sees the arrival of the first Martian cylinder and rushes back to town to announce that the Martians have landed. He and Mickey return to the cylinder just in time to see the hatch open and a Martian emerge.

These Martians are naturally rather cute and not especially threatening. True they desire world domination, but you get the impression that life under these alien overlords would be relatively benign and though they deploy Tripods, Heat Rays and even the dreaded Black Smoke, these weapons are more of a hindrance than a mortal threat; the worst treatment anyone would need from inhaling their poison gas would be a throat lozenge and a nice strong cup of tea. Similarly, when Goofy leads a delegation to greet the Martians, the only casualty is his white handkerchief, which gets zapped. The story also ends on a fairly upbeat note, with the Martians reduced not to rotten putrefying corpses killed off by earth’s bacteria, but to coughing, sneezing, wheezing victims of Goofy’s cold. It’s basically an intergalactic case of man-flu, and the Martians depart at stories end in search of a good all-in-one remedy. Well, I made that last bit up, but you get the point.

The well crafted story was written by Alessandro Sisti (1960-), a regular writer for Disney Italia since the 1980s and drawn by the talented Maria Luisa Uggetti (1937-) and Tiberio Colantuoni (1935-2007). Both Uggetti and Colantuoni are well known in Italy and often partnered together on Disney comics. Colantuoni had created independently the long running character Bongo, a dopey looking Gorilla, and Uggetti is also responsible for several very popular characters in her own right. Their art for Topolino e la Guerra dei Mondi is fun, colourful and expressive, and though it is pitched at younger readers, it occasionally pulls off a surprise, especially one very nice full page splash page of Mickey’s horse rearing up at the appearance of a Martian Tripod. Most of all, you get the sense that there was a real reverence for the source material, and that this is no quick knock-off.
Topolino e la Guerra dei Mondi has been reprinted in Italy a number of times with different covers, and it has also recently been translated into English, though at present it is only available via the Disney Ipod and Android Apps.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

My review of John Carter

It was a depressing experience to watch John Carter this weekend, not because it was a bad film, (it’s most certainly not) but because by my count, a total of 12 people turned out to watch it, and this at 8pm on a Friday evening, when you would have thought there was the potential for a good crowd. That lost potential I blame squarely on Disney, but I’ll come back to that later, what about the film?

I liked it, my wife liked it, and that’s very illuminating, because I’m extremely aware of the source material, she is almost completely unexposed to it. That implies to me that Andrew Stanton has produced a well balanced movie with broad appeal, though that’s not to say it is without flaws, the opening scenes set on Mars are a horribly stilted affair that tries to stuff an entire movies worth of back-story into 5 minutes – it’s like saying, hey, you’re too thick as an audience to work things out during the journey, (or we as filmmakers couldn’t work out how to tell it) so we’ll lecture you at the beginning so you don’t have to trouble your tiny minds. It’s a terrible idea that movies seldom recover from, but thankfully John Carter does, so I prefer to expunge those horrible 5 minutes from my mind and imagine instead that the movie begins when a young Edgar Rice Burroughs discovers that his Uncle John Carter has died in strange and unexpected circumstances. Handed his Uncle’s journal, he begins to read and we are transported to frontier America and introduced to our hero, an embittered, gold obsessed derelict of a man who has lost all empathy and humanity.

It’s a lovely multi-faceted introduction, full of action, gentle humour and a growing sense that we are dealing with a severely damaged man. It’s certainly not the same John Carter of the original novel, but that’s no bad thing, and nor is this only thing the movie tinkers with, yet looking back, I feel no sense of outrage – this is still A Princess of Mars in all the essentials and when Carter is accidentally transported to Mars, the viewer is treated to one of the most artfully conceived alien worlds in recent memory:  trackless deserts, great abandoned cities on the shores of vanished seas and inhabitants as strange as they are varied.  I was particularly happy to see the Tharks are still much as Burroughs imagined them, a noble race reduced to brutality by the rigors of existence on a dying world, though I really wish we could have spent more time with them. The film does feel needlessly rushed at times, and I think there was a missed opportunity here to show in greater depth the development of Carter’s growing sense of kinship with the Tharks, despite their many repellent aspects. This was always for me the strongest element of the book, and it is telling that when Stanton focuses on this, it provides some of the most compelling moments of the film, such as when the Tharks murder in cold bold the runts in a litter of their young.

This is not a perfect film by any means; the editing has the feel of something that has been chopped and changed too many times at the hands of too many focus groups, but you can still feel the reverence for the material and I believe that Stanton has fought hard to keep his vision intact. He may not have won every battle – I have to wonder if those opening scenes on Mars were foisted on him – but there’s a great film trying hard to get out here, and when those flashes of brilliance are allowed to shine, you find yourself transported to a living breathing Mars filled with all the things you want from a great movie, soaring imagination, grand sweeping vistas and wonderful characters. Taylor Kitsch is well cast, with the necessary physical muscle for the part, but enough acting chops to do good work with the character. I liked him a lot in the role, but kudos also to Lynn Collins, who does sterling work with the character of love interest Dejah Thoris: princess, scientist and warrior rolled into one. There’s good chemistry between the two, and their feelings for each other, especially the conflicted emotions of Taylor, makes for an effective and emotional love story.

Would I have done it differently (pardon the hubris)? Yes, I think I would. I would have pushed the retro vintage pedigree of the story more – that awful intro makes a ham fisted attempt to justify an atmosphere on Mars, and that I think was a mistake. The implausibility should have been amped up, embraced and even revelled in. Alternatively, it occurs to me that they could have introduced a time travel aspect to the story, suggesting perhaps that Carter had in travelling to Mars, also arrived in the far Martian past. A framing device of a first Martian landing on Mars could have then been introduced, in which Astronauts discover the remains of the Martian civilisation and Carter’s journal buried in one of the ancient cities. Perhaps the astronaut could have been called Burroughs. However it was done, the audience could have been prepared for this vision of Mars, but they were left completely in the dark.

Which brings me on the marketing. I won’t dwell on this in great detail because others have already done good work dissecting the awful approach taken by Disney, but I am staggered that more was not made of Burroughs. Not one trailer mentioned Tarzan, an incredible lapse, and what about Andrew Stanton and his impressive body of work for Pixar? Why didn’t they push the importance of the story to science fiction in general, why was the marketing so one track, focused on spectacle at the expense of story? Why was Disney so quick to announce, just weeks into the release, that they had a disaster on their hands, surely doing great damage to perceptions amongst the wavering ticket buying public? “Hey, anyone want to go see that film Disney says is a disaster?” I think students of cinema will be debating this one for decades. But hopefully, in those decades to come, John Carter will also get the respect it deserves, and maybe, just maybe, just as for instance Blade Runner grew in statue, Andrew Stanton will get to revisit Barsoom and re-cut the film as he intended, because I can see the greatness in his John Carter, and I strongly suspect a masterpiece is lying on the cutting room floor.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

My thoughts on the 2nd John Carter (of Mars) trailer.

I was left feeling particularly underwhelmed by the first trailer to John Carter, so approached this second effort with some trepidation. It is then with cautious optimism that I can report myself much more impressed by the new trailer. It’s still seriously lacking in context – is it just me, or is the word Mars like a giant diseased elephant stinking up the room – but there are hints of something beyond “Blockbuster” if you care to look for it. I’d point in particular to a moment about 1 minute in, where we see what look to be the bodies of Red Martians (it’s hard to tell) being piled up by Tharks and a look of despair on the face of Deeja Thoris at the sight. This is pure Edgar Rice Burroughs, and if the movie is going to take time to tell the story of the Tharks – a proud and noble race driven to savagery by the harsh and dwindling resources of Mars, then we might just be looking at a Blockbuster with heart and soul. I like the fact that it seems Carter is, as the book told, to be reluctantly absorbed into the Thark hoard, and hope if that’s the case, we’ll get some of the conflict we feel in the book, as he tries to juggle respect for their strength and nobility with loathing for their barbarous ways. I am somewhat perturbed at hints of a McGuffin of some sort, and there seem to be some other significant deviations from the original story hinted at. Also, though Sarkoja and Soja, two key female Thark characters in the book are credited in the cast, I don’t see any sign of them yet – I hope that particularly plot strand has not fallen too far by the wayside. So it’s a much better trailer than the 1st, hinting at a darker and more thoughtful movie than the predominating action sequences suggest, though if truth be told, I am still not getting the wow factor. And I’m sorry, but I still absolutely hate that anodyne “John Carter” title.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review of John Carter: A Princess of Mars, issue 3

I’m really loving the adaptation of A Princess of Mars from Marvel Comics. It’s a measure of how much that I’ve been checking the Marvel App religiously every day for the last week desperate for the latest issue to appear. The wait has been worth it. Issue 3 certainly does not disappoint, in fact it’s probably the best so far.

I expressed some concern in my review of issue 2 that the modern language was proving a little discordant, but if I felt the balance was a bit off then, then it’s spot on here. In fact it’s a joy to read, with a light exuberant bounce to the dialogue and some great character moments between John Carter and Dejah Thoris as their romance begins to blossom. I think it’s fair to say that writer Roger Langridge and artist Filipe Andrade are completely in sync now, producing work that perfectly compliments each other.

I’m particularly impressed with the way they can switch seamlessly between light and dark moments, none more evidently in this issue than when Carter goes into berserker mode in a Thark arena. Andrade quite literally goes dark, he and colourist Sunny Gho (whom I can’t praise highly enough) forgoing the normal rich colour palette except for vivid sprays of arterial blood which splash shockingly across the page. A tip of the hat also to Skottie Young, who continues to provide fantastic cover illustrations.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this may well prove to be the definitive John Carter comic book adaptation. I can only hope that the same team can be persuaded to carry on adapting the other books in the series.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review of John Carter: World of Mars, book 2.

Marvel has two distinct and very stylistically different comic books in production at the moment based around the forthcoming John Carter (of Mars) movie. A Princess of Mars is a straight up adaptation of the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, while World of Mars is a prequel of sorts to the Andrew Stanton movie. While Princess of Mars is much more cartoonish in terms of art, World of Mars opts for a far more lifelike approach to its depiction of the characters and terrain of the red planet.

At the end of issue 1 of World of Mars, the villainous and vainglorious Sab Than had penetrated the defences of the city of Helium, intent of kidnapping the Princess Dejah Thoris and thus bringing an end to the war with his city of Zodanga. As Issue 2 opens, we see him carry out the first stage of his plan, stealing the Princess away but inadvertently plunging both into mortal peril when a Martian sand storm engulfs them. Meanwhile, the Tharks Tal Hajus and Tars Tarkas are on a quest to find the Gothan, a legendary Thark warrior undefeated in battle. Tal Hajus believes that if he can defeat the Gothan, then this will give him the mandate to unseat the leader of his hoard, who has become a bloated and twisted shadow of a true Martian warrior Thark.

The cover of issue 2 of World of Mars depicts a stunning encounter between Martian warrior Tharks and a White Ape, demonstrating that artist Luke Ross has a real affinity for the Tharks and other exotic fauna of Mars, but I feel his work on the more humanoid Red Martians seems less assured, or perhaps it’s just that this strand of the story is not as well written. I complained in my last review of Princess of Mars that the dialogue had been overly modernised for my tastes, but the converse is perhaps true of World of Mars; it really could do with loosening up a bit, it’s just too formal for my tastes. There’s also an awful lot of exposition that seems to drag the story down, largely in the strand of the story featuring Sab Than and Dejah Thoris. The two strands of the story are of course surely destined to meet, but at present I don’t feel they have much hope of connecting in any meaningful way.

One of the centrepieces of this issue is the fight trailered on the cover, though unfortunately something seems to have been forgotten here. It is I would suggest reasonably well established that the Tharks live in fear of the White Apes and that John Carter gains respect in the Thark hoard by completing the seemingly impossible task of killing one of these brutes, an outcome only possible because of his superior strength in comparison to the Martians. Yet in this issue, Tar Tarkas defeats a White Ape by leaping onto its back (surely only Carter should be able to leap like this) and strangling it to death with his bare hands. I was also vaguely perturbed to have his fighting move described as a Full Neslon! Surely that’s a rather human term; why not at least make up a Martian fighting move?

I’m really sorry to say that I’m just not feeling any great affinity for this series. Princess of Mars has rapidly become a favourite of mine, but this World of Mars seems a rather dull place. I’ve started, so I’ll finish, but I’m not holding out much hope that things will improve.