Monthly Archives: February 2014

Around the Web February 28, 2014

Good news for all of you Calvin & Hobbes fans out there. Reclusive creator Bill Watterson is finally releasing new public work.  Watterson has created the poster for Stripped, a new documentary film that discusses the state of comic strips and features interviews with a few of my personal favorite cartoonists, such as Danielle Corsetto (Girls with Slingshots), Jim Davis (Garfield) and Bill Amend (Foxtrot).

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I can’t believe it’s been almost TWENTY years since the last Calvin & Hobbes strip… I feel old now.

Marvel and Netflix have announced that their new, original series will be shot in New York City.  The four previously announced series will feature Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist.  A fifth series will include all four heroes teaming up as The Defenders (think Avengers, but on a less global scale). This does, of course, mean that once again the Big Apple will get the crap kicked out of it by super-powered villains.

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If they were actually rebuilding New York as often the comics would have us believe, I think that the roads would be in far better shape.

With the latest sales numbers putting Xbox One solidly in second place behind the PS4, Microsoft has recently been considering cutting the price of the Xbox One. Conventional thinking says this is probably a good idea, since the Xbox One costing $100 more than the PS4 is probably a significant factor in the sales figure differences. At least one person, Erik Kain of Forbes, doesn’t agree with this. Kain thinks that maintaining the price, but selling the system in bundle packages with games is the best route. This will maintain the profitability of the console without significantly increasing costs for Microsoft, as well as helping to promote their big-name, exclusive titles, like Titanfall.

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What I found most interesting is that some people are actually pushing for Microsoft to dump the Xbox brand entirely. Even if the console is sitting at number two, I can’t fathom why they would do that.

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Review: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

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B movies must be judged by their own set of standards. Attempts to compare a movie like Godzilla, which is a high quality B movie, to something like Lawrence of Arabia, a masterpiece of film, will never work. Lawrence of Arabia will win out every time because it is a much better film. Unfortunately there are B movies that reside on the low end of this modified scale and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is one such movie.

I heard about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians years ago when I first became interested in B movies. It is one of the more well-known B movies and so I therefore assumed it was one of the better ones. This, regrettably, was not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I did thoroughly enjoy myself, but that was largely due to the fact that I’m amused by bad acting and terrible looking movies.

Kimar (Leonard Hicks) and Momar (Leila Martin)—King and Mom Martian—are concerned that their children Bomar (Chris Month), a male Martian, and Girmar (Pia Zadora), a female, are watching too much TV and becoming obsessed with Santa Claus (John Call) so much that they barely eat or sleep. Kimar gathers together the other Martian leaders, including the adversarial Voldar (Vincent Beck), to consult their mystical elder Chochem.

Voldar and Kimar

Voldar and Kimar

Chochem tells the Martian leadership that they must let their children be children (instead of educating them to adult levels while they are still infants) and foster creativity and individuality. In order to do this, they need a Santa Claus on Mars. I’m a little fuzzy on how Santa will provide the creativity and individuality, but we’ll just run with it. Kimar decides that the best way to have a Santa is to kidnap Santa, so the Martians go to Earth to acquire him. Along the way we are introduced to the comic relief character Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) who is the standard, clumsy oaf. While on Earth, the Martians also kidnap Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty (Donna Conforti) and take them back to Mars, along with Santa, where the two kidnappees help him run an automated toy factory so the Martian children can have toys.

Eventually things come to a head when Voldar tries to kidnap Santa.  Instead, he accidentally grabs Dropo, who is pretending to be Santa, and sabotages the toy factory in an effort to overthrow Kimar. I tried to wrap my brain around this, but was forced to stop after experiencing sharp pains and seeing dark spots before my eyes.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen acting this bad in a movie. These guys make porn stars look like Shakespearean actors. The dialogue is poorly delivered and character reactions are delayed at best. Frequently the characters are just standing around, speaking to each other without actually acting. The fight scenes are so badly choreographed that characters are swinging at each other from several feet away and then fall over while the camera shakes. The kids—especially the Martian kids—are extremely wooden, and Santa is completely clueless throughout most of the movie. At one point he can’t remember the names of his reindeer and throws “Nixon” into the list.

Even by B movies standards, the visuals are pretty rough. The Martians in particular are awful looking, dressed completely in green (green body suit with a green shirt and green briefs or boxers) with green grease paint on their faces that doesn’t match the color of their clothing. They’re also wearing some kind of green helmet out of which their antenna.  The antenna appear to be made from poorly shaped and painted tinfoil, which makes me wonder if the budget was so low that the creators couldn’t afford a bent coat hanger.

They must have spent the majority of the budget on making the worst looking robot and polar bear in movie history. The robot is essentially a guy in a large box with dryer ducts on his arms and legs, and a bucket on his head, all painted silver. This movie is already ten years after Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, both of which were awesome looking robots. Even in a low budget film these creators should have been able to do more than they did.

Worst Robot Ever.

Worst Robot Ever.

As for the polar bear… you really just need to see it to believe it.

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I don’t have the time to make up things this awful.

All of the sets were pretty terrible. There was not a single scene that was actually shot outdoors. All of the outside scenes were obviously shot on sound stages. Even the one scene when the Martians first abduct Billy and Betty, which could have easily been shot at a local park, was instead done indoors. The various North Pole scenes look like some alien world from Star Trek, just painted white, dirt included. The cave set at the end of the movie consists of some foam rocks and what appears to be painted cardboard layered to give the appearance of depth.

The Martian spaceship is just as lackluster as the rest of the sets. Most importantly, the viewer never gets to see the outside of the ship, aside from the four legs and ladder seen at the North Pole, and those are pretty lame. The ship’s bridge is amusingly bad. In the corner is the Radar Box, which powers the Radar Shield; and it is labeled, in English, Radar Box. What is even better is that it is basically just a wooden toy box with some circuit boards attached to the lid and one very small bundle of wires running along the inside. This makes it quite easy for Billy to sabotage the Radar Shield.  All he has to do it pull out the single bundle of poorly attached wires. The budget appears to be so low that they couldn’t even afford a real double throw switch. When every bad Frankenstein movie set is practically littered with those switches, you would think they could find at least one for a reasonable price.

Are you telling me they couldn't find one of these for cheap?

Are you telling me they couldn’t find one of these for cheap?

While this is an absolutely terrible movie, there were a few, very minor points that weren’t quite so awful. While his acting is horrible, John Call at least looks the part of Santa. It would not have surprised me if they had instead chosen a skinny guy with no beard to play Santa, but they didn’t. There is also some pretty good stock footage of the US military, mostly focused on bombers and nuclear missiles. There is, in fact, close to five whole minutes of this footage when the Martians show up on Earth.

As I said before, I enjoyed this movie in spite of how bad it is. That being said, I cannot in good conscience recommend this movie to anyone as an example of good quality, low budget film making. I give it one Death Star.

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Winning Science February 26, 2014

I think at one point or another just about everyone takes a moment to ponder their own death. Certainly no one knows the exact moment that it will come, but now science is inching closer to giving us that information. Researchers in Finland and Estonia have determined that elevated levels of four biomarkers may indicate that otherwise healthy people are more susceptible to illness and are more likely to die within five years. Scientists involved, who refer to the test as a measure of general “frailty”, were so skeptical of the results from the initial 9842 participants they included an additional 7503, just to verify their results.

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Things don’t look good for Fry.

Maybe in the future we will have Futurama‘s Death Clock.

Authorities in New Mexico are now prepared to send workers back into a salt mine that is being used to house nuclear waste left over from the creation of nuclear weapons. The facility was shut down when airborne contamination monitors tripped and secured the ventilation for the facility. While there was a small release to the desert surrounding the site, there was no danger to the public. The isotopes detected by remote monitors corresponded to the materials known to be stored in the plant.

Layout of WIPP facility.

Layout of WIPP facility.

My only real concerns here are that they seem to think that everything is fine despite the fact that they haven’t determined the cause yet. This all seems a little hasty.

Now it’s time for one of my favorite branches of science, the branch where we shoot lasers at stuff and see what happens. (I’m pretty sure this comes from watching too many science fiction movies as a kid.) Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have discovered a new quasiparticle that acts much like a drop of water.  Researchers discovered this unexpected response while pulsing a laser at a semiconductor. While there are currently no practical uses for this new information, it will help provide insight into how these materials work, and may lead to improvements in all kinds of things sooner than we think.

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This article also provides a wonderful, plain English description on how conductors and semiconductors work.

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The Man Who Almost Killed Comics

Throughout history most forms of popular entertainment have had their moral detractors. In the 50’s Elvis was only allowed to be shot from the waist up due to his provocative hip movements. Tipper Gore went on a crusade against heavy metal music in the mid 80’s. A 2005 California law banning the sale of certain video games to minors was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2011.  For many industries, efforts to ban products for moral reasons have been ineffectual at best, and often when the legal system is actively discriminatory, these efforts are found to be unconstitutional. When it came to comic books however, censoring attacks were extremely successful and resulted in the near collapse of the entire industry. This near fatal blow was orchestrated in large part by one man:  Dr. Fredric Wertham.

Dr. Fredric Wertham reading a comic book as part of his research.

Dr. Fredric Wertham reading a comic book as part of his research.

For the sake of fairness, Wertham cannot be wholly blamed for the attacks on the comic industry.  There were many other participating parties and several contributing factors that allowed this kind of censorship to take place.  However, Wertham’s role is the most important since he provided a scientific expertise around which the comic detractors could rally.  In the early 1950’s Wertham was a well-respected psychiatrist who often worked with the poor and juvenile delinquents.  It was his work with juvenile delinquents that actually began Wertham’s crusade for comic censorship.  As he interviewed the troubled youths, he noticed the pattern that most of the young men were regularly reading comic books.  Wertham assumed that a causal relationship existed between comics and deviant behavior, especially when it came to the more graphic horror and crime based comics. Wertham published his findings originally in a Ladies Home Journal article, and then later as book with the titillating title Seduction of the Innocent.

Wertham made many unsupported claims within the pages of Seduction of the Innocent including that Batman and Robin were homosexual lovers and that Wonder Woman was a lesbian.  He believed that these immoral influences, in addition to the violence in comics, lead to deviant behavior.  Soon Middle America was in uproar and the attack on comics was in full swing.  It was not uncommon for small towns to hold comic book burnings to rid themselves of the corrupting influence. This came to a head in 1953 with a hearing by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.  Over the course of three days, the Subcommittee heard testimony from Dr. Wertham, as well as EC Comics publisher William Gaines.

William Gaines

William Gaines

Much like the subcommittee overseeing the McCarthy hearings, which were being held during the same time period, this subcommittee came in to the hearings with less than open minds.  While Wertham was treated politely and respectfully, Gaines was questioned hostilely and treated with disdain. Gaines’ now famous exchange‡ with Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser is a prime example of how the committee members had already made up their minds before hearing all the testimony.

The infamous May issue.

The infamous May issue.

In the end the comic industry was forced to choose between imposing censorship on itself, or accepting the inevitable, and likely more restrictive government censorship that was coming their way. The new rules, called the Comics Code Authority, were loosely based on the film industry’s Hays’ Code and imposed a draconian list of limitations that crippled the comics industry. Among the most punitive measures were those banning all comics from using the words “horror” or “terror” in their titles and severely restricting the content of crime comics. These were both directed squarely at EC Comics, as punishment for Mr. Gaines testimony at the committee hearings. With these restrictions, almost of EC Comics’ books were forbidden, and EC was soon forced to cease publication. Within two years, sixty percent of all comic titles had ceased publication and those companies that remained in business were forced to slash their workforces.

The unfortunate reality surrounding these events has only just started to properly come to light. From the outset it was well known that Dr. Wertham’s methods were questionable.  A man who should have been well acquainted with the scientific method, he showed considerable disregard for it by failing to establish a control group to compare his findings.  If he had, Wertham might have realized that the overwhelming majority of kids at the time read comics.  Given that information, it would be impossible for someone to draw the causal relationship that Wertham claimed existed.  Dr. Wertham let his attempts to make a name for himself compromise his science.

Since Dr. Wertham’s notes became publically available in 2010, the full extent of his questionable methods has come to light. Prof. Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois has discovered several instances where Wertham exaggerated the findings of his interviews in order to tip the results more into his favor.

Despite all of this, Dr. Wertham is not without his redeeming qualities. Some of his other research was presented as evidence during Brown vs. Board of Education, where it provided scientific proof that racial segregation was harmful to the mental health of children, aiding in overturning fifty eight years of the “separate but equal” doctrine.

While the comics industry may have taken a dramatic hit due to Dr. Wertham’s work, it was not down for the count.  The majority of the superheroes we love—including nearly all of Marvel’s characters—were born in an era in which the Comic Code held sway. In spite of the restrictions, these characters flourished and have become deeply ingrained in our popular culture.  With the death of the Comics Code Authority in 2011, we can finally say we are rid of Wertham’s shadow, though we should remain vigilant for others who claim to protect common decency for no other reason than to attack those things they disagree with.

‡ The audio recording provides the testimony of Dr. Fredric Wertham as well as that of Mr. William Gaines. The most famous portion of Gaines’ testimony begins at 1:34:30

Further Reading:

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund – An excellent resource regarding the history of comic book censorship as well current efforts to fight censorship.

Thecomicbooks.com – Provides a full transcript of the Senate Subcommittee hearings.

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