Posts from 7th February 2006

Feb 06

THE FOUR TOPS – “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

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#225, 29th October 1966

Marvel Comics of the mid-60s had several innovative competitive advantages over their competition. A small company, they ran a tight and unified creative ship, which allowed for competition and crossover between titles and gave everything they did a distinctive identity. This identity flowed partly out of plotting and writing that focussed obsessively on the heroes’ emotional lives – Marvel characters were dogged by tragedy and hard luck, and would brood on it between their epic fights. And the fights themselves were just as crucial to the Marvel magic – its house art style was forged by the remarkable Jack Kirby, whose action sequences boomed with unmatchable vigour.

Kirby’s main technique was foreshortening – dramatic distortions of perspective that made limbs and figures seem to be blasting off and out of the page. It created a visual language that matched the melodrama of comics dialogue – flying bodies and punches given unreal emphases to match the urgent splatter of bold-type words in the speech bubbles. Read back over this description and parallels between Marvel and Motown – that other great 60s small business success – are there to be forced. But when I hear “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – and especially Levi Stubbs’ vocal performance – Jack Kirby’s newsprint epics are what springs to mind.

Stubbs’ own stabbing emphases – “When you FEEL that you cant go ON” – sound comicbook to me but they actually come from Dylan (when I read someone, maybe Frank Kogan, point this out it was one of the great “well DUH” rock critic revelations). But Dylan’s songs are mostly more languid, his phrasing a calculated sneer designed to imbalance you, lead you in, or both. Stubbs sings this like he’s in the teeth of a storm, reaching out one desperate foreshortened arm for his lover to catch hold of.

His urgency is enough to convince me, every time I’m not listening to it, that the song is faster and harder than it is: I remember the brisk, nervy bass figures and forget the gentle backing vox; I fix on the shouts and growls that accompany Stubbs and imagine an instrumental attack to match. Like a dimly remembered comic-book battle, “Reach Out” grows in my mind, becomes huger and more momentous.

This is what Stubbs wants – this kind of Good Samaritan pop is always partly a hustle. Reach out to me, I can help, I can fix you, I’m the only one – “I know what you’re thinking! You’re a loner! No love of your own!”. (Recent bestseller The Game calls this “negging”, apparently.) The girl has to reach now, quickly, before the song finishes – this is, Levi’s frenzy suggests, her last chance. For this one Kirbyfied cliffhanger moment everything in the world is at stake – until next week, next month, next song when the action can start all over again.

What shall we do about THOR? (Part 1)

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 331 views

The Mighty Thor is one of the luckiest characters in comics history. He had the good fortune to be first published at the dawn of the ‘Marvel era’, and has been firmly hitched to Marvel’s starry wagon ever since. Why “good fortune”? Because the character is a pretty typical throwaway 60s goof-off: geeky guy finds magic cane which lets him become the god Thor. It’s last-story-in-the-book stuff – no logic or twists, just an opportunity to draw a guy with a hammer and some monsters.

But luckily for Thor his creators decided this idea had legs, or the readers decided it for them, and Thor has ended up central to Marvel’s universe, all the while remaining a very goofy idea. He never quite fits in. His presence immediately complicates Marvel’s world, turning it into a universe in which every polytheistic pantheon of myth is made living, fighting flesh (monotheistic gods have no such punching power). He remains a reassuring symbol of the capacity for very odd, non-intuitive concepts to succeed in comics.

Except at the moment he doesn’t: Marvel cancelled their Thor comic last year, finishing it with a worthy, narrative-heavy story which queasily mixed Ragnarok myth with cod-Eastern philosophy. Critically acclaimed, but it was a poor way to end things and a six-issue romp called Thor: Blood Oath by the same writer is a much better send-off. The company is left without a version of the character, and news sites have batted around supposed proposals – a Thor comic by Neil Gaiman, perhaps, or a comic where various teenagers get the powers of the Asgardian Gods.

The dithering illuminates Marvel’s dilemma: Thor is one of their marquee characters, and Marvel needs a Thor; Thor is also probably well past his sell-by date. In close to 45 years of publishing his comic has only rarely been any good. It was the strip which boasted the second longest run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but their THOR is a very different beast from their FANTASTIC FOUR.

The Lee/Kirby THOR is a curious thing – a comic in which both writer and artist are clearly having a whale of a time but which still manages to be frequently pretty boring. The character might have been designed for Lee to go Shakespeare mental, and each issue is fruity and ripe with thees and thous. Kirby meanwhile gets to draw dazzling cod-medieval architecture, many horrible monsters, and also indulge his experimental side with plenty of splash page collages whenever Thor goes into space.

“Thor goes into space” – this happened quite a lot, actually, and sums up the Lee/Kirby version’s glories and problems. A focused comic about a Norse God might well not have had him tooling around in the Black Galaxy, or fighting the Colonizers of Rigel. THOR’s anything-goes approach meant the character did just this, and plenty more besides, creating a mix of high fantasy, sci-fi, and urban superhero action which no amount of pitching would replicate nowadays. The downside of this was that the mag had no direction at all: Thor spent a great deal of time in New York fighting complete no-marks such as Cobra and the Circus of Crime, presumably because Jack Kirby fancied drawing some gangsters that month.

Such threats were obviously a bit too puny for Thor so the much-repeated stock plot would have Odin the All-Father de-powering his son on a whim, “teaching Thor humility” then resetting his power levels when Kirby thought up a menace more in a God’s league. Stories would end suddenly on a wave of Odin’s omnipotent hand, the creators obviously bored. The Lee/Kirby Thor has some great ideas and some real peaks and it’s hard not to read it with fondness, but it never gets the momentum it needs going. For better or worse though, Lee/Kirby’s grab-bag of clashing approaches set the tone for THOR for 20-odd years.

(Part 2 coming soon)

Worst Business Plan Ever

Do You SeePost a comment • 238 views

Changing Rooms

Tony, who split from his wife Georgina after he replaced their fridge with a “warp coil” said: “I was convinced Trekkies all over the world would want a house like mine and pay me to do it.

But I was wrong.”

If you watch one thing on the web this week…

Do You SeePost a comment • 301 views

Watch this, the trailer to Brokeback To The Future.

A joke that manages to sustain itself above and beyond its one line premise.

No Money Was Spent In Bringing You This Review

Do You SeePost a comment • 440 views

I thought it was important to keep tabs on the machinations of Underworld: Evolution. But I also thought it equally important not to swell the coffers of the lousy film-makers responsible. So I snuck in. Missing the first couple of minutes, which I believe gives Bill Nighy the right to have third billing in a film where he barely appears. Good on you Bill, you are best out of this sorry mess.

He is replaced, in the respectable actor stakes, by Derek Jacobi who is unclear what his role is. You don’t blame him, the script seems equally unclear. As far as I could work out he plays the father of all vampires and werewolves, and as such (like Scott Speedman from the original rubbish Underworld) is potentially more powerful than both. This power has been used through the centuries as some sort of cosmic dustman, explaining why we humans have never noticed the interminable war between the Lycans and the Vampyres.

Anyway none of this explains why Kate Beckinsale is wearing rubber.

Picking up where the previous rubbish left off, it is a non-stop breakneck chase. Though having killed all the werewolves and vampires in the previous film, they ran out of bad guys. So some new ones, with no real plot behind them turn up. Director and Mr Beckinsale happily realised that the “blue smurf” design of the hybrid creature was a bit rubbish, and thus relegates Speedman’s character to wimpy love extra for much of the film. Also he realised the apparent attraction of his wife and therefore gets in some nudy shots and does not mutate her too much when she gains “ultimate power”. She just puts in some blue contact lenses.

Ending in another one of those multi-part fights that go on forever, and the suggestion of yet another poorly made low budget sequel, there is not a moment in Underworld: Evolution where your heart does not sink at the poverty of imagination of everyone involved. And for that I say Bravo – I’m spending my next fiver on Grizzly Man.

Ask A Silly Question

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 1,242 views

Been using it for years, and this has never popped into my mind until a couple of days ago. A query regarding our old firey friend Ginger.

Why is ginger ginger? Or more accurately, why are ginger people ginger? All the ginger I have ever eaten has been yellow on the inside and light brown on the outside. Never has it been bright orange. What aren’t orange haired people oranges? Is it because ginger, as a foreign, somewhat firey and spicy food, was seen to be more sinister than the happy, sweet friendly orange and citrusy mates? Perhaps : But ginger is yellow!

(Also new excuse when anyone accuses my beard of being ginger: But ginger isn’t ginger.)