Stalker: DC Comics Adventure Line

stalker

STALKER: BEWARE THE MAN WITH THE STOLEN SOUL

                I loved this comic. I still have issue #1 from when it was first published (and Justice Inc too, by the way). It enthralled me as a youngster. Steve Ditko & Wally Wood’s combined art was stupendous. The scene where the demon takes Stalker’s soul is breathtaking. As an adult, thanks to ebay and other internet stores, I finally collected the rest of the series. Nothing was concluded, of course. But I got them! Despite my love of the first issue, I could see its limitations.

Trouble was, until the end of the four issues it had only one plot – Stalker wanted his soul back. This sets up a one-note plot which, if resolved, ends the story. Gilligan gets off the island, Stalker gets his soul back – show’s over. Still, it worked for “The Fugitive”…

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But with Conan the Barbarian dominating the sword and sorcery genre in comic books, and other pretenders doing fair if not well – such as Claw the Unconquered – there just wasn’t room for the weird comic about the man with the lost soul. Perhaps he was too much of an anti-hero. Later interpretations of him as a supervillain make me sad.

                Too bad, the four original issues were real gems.

***

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“Beware the Man with the Stolen Soul” appeared on every cover.

#1. July 1975, “Quest for a Stolen Soul”, Paul Levitz (w/creator), Steve Ditko/Wally Wood (a), Joe Orlando (e); an abandoned boy living as a street rat yearns to be a sword-wielding knight! He begs that land’s Baroness to train and serve her as a warrior. She instead uses him as a slave. He escapes and begs the god of warriors Dgrth to be made a warrior. Dgrth agrees – the child will be given inhuman martial skill in exchange for his soul. Deal! Wait, you want the soul NOW and not when I die? Wait! Too late! Stalker threatens to kill the Baroness in one year – making her remaining year of life a torment – and slays his former slave-master. He feels no joy or satisfaction as he has no soul. He vows to get his soul back!

                A full-page house ad for Stalker and Beowulf Dragon Slayer is in this comic.

                The text page includes a bio of Paul Levitz and a map of some of Stalker’s world! A map! No fantasy epic is complete unless it contains a map!

                How I yearn to see the tale of vengeance against the Baroness in the next year. The editor says in a letter column that by issue #7 Stalker will be in the northern lands wherein lie dragons. Issue #7, on a bi-monthly schedule – would be the year anniversary. Did the Baroness hie herself to northern lands? What a great multi-parter that would have been – Stalker tracking down the Baroness across the map!

#2. September 1975, “Darkling Death at World’s End Sea”, (same team); F’lan, the prior of Dgrth’s temple at World’s End Sea, knows where lay the gateway to Dgrth’s domain. Stalker is captured by F’lan, who will sacrifice the marked one to Dgrth. Stalker escapes with the help of Merilla on the promise Stalker will take her with him.

                The Ditko/Wood art is just as good as the first issue – the World’s End Sea is just that! Just past the shoreline the sea drops off into eternity. Grand stuff!

                The full-page Adventure Line ad appears in this issue.

#3. November 1975, “The Freezing Flames of the Burning Isle”, (same team); The Burning Isle, on which – so Stalker learned from F’lan – hides the portal to Dgrth’s realm. Stalker befriends Srani, a witch banished to the island one year ago. She tells that the gods and demons man worships were in fact ancient aliens from the stars who were themselves banished from this island to their various domains. Is Srani more than she seems?

                The letter column says this could be Stalker’s last issue depending on the sale numbers.

                My copy of this issue is a Mark Jeweler variant: a cardboard insert advertising Mark Jewelers was distributed on or near military bases. Not only did this soldier defend my freedom, he bought a dandy comic book too!

#4. January 1976, “Invade the Inferno”, (same team – the letter column reveals Ben Oda and Joe Letterese (l), Tatjana Wood, John Albano Jr & Carl Gifford (i) through the series); Stalker invades hell, fights its minions and raises an army against Dgrth. Stalker confronts the demon and demands the return of his soul. He cannot return it – only Dgrth’s death can free Stalker’s soul; and only when a god is forgotten can it truly die. Then Stalker shall slay all evil until his soul is returned. So he vows!

                The letter column says this issue wraps up the first part of the series in case of cancellation. They were right! 

***

If the series had continued it would thus head to other plots – now Stalker seeks to destroy all evil rather than “just” getting back his soul: a MUCH more open storyline with lots of potential (“The Fugitive” wasn’t just him hunting for the one-armed man – there were lots of great stories in between…). Perhaps he can still find his humanity by helping others – even if his reasons are selfish. Perhaps he would have found allies or (gasp) friends.  How a man with no soul would handle allies and friends would make for some interesting character development – even for only a panel or two, as was normal with 1970s comic books.

If it had only taken less than four issues to get to that point. Between the art and that storyline it might have attracted some attention.

 

                Stalker appeared in JSA Returns as a demonic supervillain, in Swamp Thing (with Adventure Line alum Claw), and in the 2008 Wonder Woman story arc Ends of the Earth as the villain – battling the Amazon with Claw and Beowulf at her side. Stalker replaced Beowulf as the back-up feature in issues #4-7 of the DC New 52 magazine Sword of Sorcery.

                My favorite of the Adventure Line books, if only sentimentally. The art is breathtaking!  It’s Ditko & Wood, folks! DITKO! WOOD!

Original material copyright 2015 Michael Curry

Happy Birthday, JRR Tolkien & Isaac Asimov!

A quick blog entry, but of utmost importance!!

Yesterday was Isaac Asimov‘s birthday, today is J.R.R. Tolkien‘s, born 122 years ago. Tolkien created the fantasy genre eventually named after him (although as his book “Children of Turin” shows he still wrote “high” fantasy). My book shelves (other than the Asimov shelf) is lined with books he influenced. Thank you for everything, Professors – both of you – and I mean everything…

Kong the Untamed – DC Adventure Line

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“Enter the Primitive World of … KONG the Untamed

   SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES             Thus read the heading of DC’s Kong the Untamed. Not to be confused with the big gorilla from Skull Island. Now THAT would have made an interesting comic book.

                This Kong was interesting too. The text from the first issue’s letter page tells us the DC editors decided to try to revive the caveman again in comic book form. They tried some years back with Anthro. He debuted in Showcase and lasted six issues of his own comic in 1967.

                Not that these were bad issues. In fact, the series started out with quite a pedigree and lots of potential. Alcala’s art, a staple of horror comics from DC and Marvel, gave the series a dark and ominous feel – you never knew what was around the corner. In fact, the first two issues seemed to be an attack followed by a chase followed by an attack. It was of limited appeal and limited scope. Nowadays it would have made an award-winning 12-issue miniseries.

                Later issues lightened the look and the tone. Gerry Conway, fresh from his writing duties on Amazing Spider-Man, gave the book a “Lost World” tone by bringing in dinosaurs (something the letter columnists begged not to happen) and a Romeo-Juliet-like romance. After the dark and brooding first two issues, it turned into Kazar-lite.

***

                #1.  July 1975, “Kong the Untamed” by Jack Oleck ( w ), Alfred Alcala (a), Joe Orlando (e), cover by Bernie Wrightson. Born with blond hair to Attu, Kong is prophecy reborn! A mighty warrior and leader he shall be! Trog the One-Eyed, the tribal chieftan is jealous and fearful of the stripling and banished his mother and newborn child. As Kong grows on the outskirts of the tribe – he learns to hunt, forage and fight! When he asks to play with the children of his tribe, he is pelted with stones. When he is older, a teenager, he is attacked by a Beast Man (a Neanderthal – Kong and his tribe are Cro-Magnon). A capture/escape/chase commences between the tribe, the Beast Men and Kong and his mother. Eventually the tribe catches up with Attu and kills her. Kong vows revenge against Trog and the gods who cursed him with his blond hair!

                Wrightson’s dark cover set the tone for the issue maintained by the art of Alcala, known for his art in horror books for Marvel and DC. The writing and art show us a dark and cruel world at the dawn of man. Whether the comic would last for dozens or hundreds of issues is doubtful; but the debut showed great potential.

                #2. September 1975, “Blood Brother” by the same team. Cover by Wrightson. This comic features the full-page ad touting their Adventure Line!

                Kong is attacked by wolves. The rock he throws in defense causes a spark. When he is safe, he learns to make fire! Kong is captured by the same tribe of Beast Men from issue #1 but is rescued by Gurat – the Beast Man he bested last issue. Gurat respects the yellow-haired stripling! The two outcasts join together to fight off Gurat’s Beast Men tribe and a deer-hunting Cro-Magnon tribe and become as brothers. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

                #3. November 1975. “The Caves of Doom” by the same team, but with scripts by Gerry Conway. Cover by Bill Draut.

                A cave provides shelter from a storm until Kong and Garut are captured by Kong’s former tribe! In escaping, they go deeper into the cave until they find a hidden valley of living dinosaurs and spear-toting humans! It is revealed that Trog is Kong’s father.

                Uber-fan the late Richard Morrisey has a letter in the letter column – the only one with negative things to say about the book. Although it is better than Tor, he says, he predicts a swift death due to its lack of scope. At least it doesn’t have men fighting dinosaurs. In this issue, Kong and Gurat fight a dinosaur…

                #4. January 1976, “Valley of Blood”, Gerry Conway ( w ), Tony Caravana (a), Jo Ingente (i), Joe Orlando (e), cover by Bill Draut.

                Kong and Gurat are attacked by a human in this valley of dinosaurs! A spear hits Gurat and is left for dead by a river as the stranger takes Kong to his village. Kong, after the required fistfight, eventually befriends his apologetic captor, named Rolan. This new village is led by Priestess Jelenna in a society ruled by women! Jelenna strikes Kong for his male-centric views and Kong swears revenge (after getting revenge on Trog of course. Kong is getting an enemy’s list as long as Nixon’s by now…). Kong helps Rolan kill a Spiketail (a dinosaur) to win the hand the priestess’ daughter Sharra. 

                #5. March 1976. “Bones of the Martyr”, Gerry Conway ( w ) David Wenzel (i), Bill Draut (i) – although comic lists both as illustrators and does not say who drew and who inked, Joe Orlando (e), cover by Bill Draut and David Wenzel.

                Rolan tries to foment a revolt of the village men against Jelenna. Sharra sides with her mother and the other women as Rolan is put to death. Meanwhile, Gurat is captured, and then befriends, by a pteradactile-riding tribe of Cro-Magnons. They attack their sworn enemies – Jelenna’s village – and rescue Kong. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, but I wonder where the series would have gone …

***

                Anthro outlasted Kong by one issue – two if you count his Showcase debut. So much for bringing back the caveman. Maybe they should have tried a comic starring a big gorilla instead…

Original Material Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

The DC Comics Adventure Line!

The DC Comics Adventure Line!

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In late 1975 issues of DC comics had the following full-page house ad:

“First DC gave you the World’s Greatest Super-heroes” and a line-up of some of their most-popular characters: Flash, Black Canary (an odd choice, but the line-up needed a hot blonde), Captain Marvel (another odd choice since his comic was about to go on hiatus for 1976 – but would soon be revived as a Saturday morning cartoon, hence his inclusion), Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (another odd choice as at the time he was relegated to Flash as a back-up feature) and Deadman (perhaps the strangest choice of all – his solo feature, although legendary, was long-since cancelled by then).

“Then DC introduced top quality mystery tales” and a line-up of characters from their horror line – the one genre DC can truly say they did better than Marvel (perhaps war titles, too, but Marvel didn’t release many war or horror comics that weren’t reprint titles by this time and you will ALWAYS get an argument from the more ardent Marvel zom-er-fans about ANY genre): Abel of House of Secrets, Mordred of The Witching Hour, The Phantom Stranger, Cain of House of Mystery, the Spectre, Eve of Secrets of Sinister House and Swamp Thing.

“NOW DC presents fantasy at its best in our all-new ADVENTURE line” and a rendering from each of the seven new comics available: Justice Inc., Claw, Tor, Stalker, Warlord, Beowulf, and Kong. “Now on sale in their own ACTION-PACKED magazines!”

These comics were published under the DC banner and weren’t really part of a “line” or “imprint” – a unique subspecies of comic from the same publisher. That sort of branding wouldn’t become popular for many years to come – Milestone,  Epic, Vertigo, etc. Even the X-Men were given its own line of comics under the Marvel banner.

DC did do a branding of sorts in the next year or so with its DC/TV line – Superfriends, Isis, Shazam and Welcome Back Kotter all published with a variation of the DC logo in the upper left-hand corner to mark these comics as unique in the line-up. No such variation was seen in these so-called “Adventure Line” comics.

Only two characters that debuted under the Adventure Line had any staying power – that is, new adventures could still be found in comic books years after their debut: Warlord and Claw. The Avenger in Justice Inc is and always shall be a strange exception to the mix – his pulp adventures began when Superman was only “a year old” and Batman had only been around for four months (can you imagine if Batman only lasted for four issues as the Avenger did…). His comic book adventures have been published by various companies to this day (Dynamite’s Justice Inc is on the stands right now) and the odd inclusion of a gun-toting crime killer in a group of sword/spear/club-wielding Conan clones will be discussed in the blog reviewing those issues.

That’s not to put the line down. DC put their A-list talent on these comics. The credits read like a list of who’s who in comic-book-dom: Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, David Michelinie, Ernie Chan, Alfred Alcala, Gerry Conway, Keith Giffen, and of course Mike Grell. The stories and art were well done!

Oh at times there was garbage too, particularly with the last few issues of a run, but overall the quality was good to fair (sometimes great!) compared to other comics released at the time.

I’ve loved all these comics since their debut and I hope you enjoy the next seven blog posts reviewing them!

Original Material copyright 2015 Michael G Curry

Part two of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies review…

A review of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

from Seven Chapters, shown in Three-D

Part Two

(one last time)

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            War between elves, dwarves and men is about to begin…

            Quick! Read my blog of Part One of this review: https://michaelgcurry.com/2014/12/28/a-late-review-of-the-hobbit-battle-of-the-five-armies/

            An army of elves and remaining Laketown humans line the fields in a scene reminiscent of the Battle of Helms Deep in “Two Towers”. When Thorin’s cousin Dain and his dwarves of the northern Iron Hills crest the mountain and march to the Elf/Man army, we share Bilbo’s despair that war cannot be avoided.

            Dain, by the way, is marvelously played by comedian Billy Connolly.  His presence steals every scene – an incredible feat for such an epic movie! Plus he rides a war pig (Jackson resisted the One-Ring-level urge to play the Black Sabbath song…) and tells the elves to sod off! What’s not to love?

            Just before the three armies come to blows, the orcs attack from underground tunnels. D&Der will thrill at the sight of purple worms bursting through the earth’s crust. Movie fans will have traumatic “Dune” flashbacks.  “I will kill him!” MacLachlan! Is … is that Picard? Sting! {SLAP} Oh, sorry … thanks …

            The scene of the dwarves holding the line against the oncoming orcs is thrilling – the dwarves and elves unite against a common enemy. If there weren’t just six people in the theater that day, I probably would have cheered!

            In Jackson’s non-novel storyline, Legolas and Tauriel travel to Gundabad, an orc stronghold to the north, and find a second orc army coming from the north to form a second attack wave. They arrive to warn the Three Armies just before the second wave hits.

            Thorin and company are still held up in Erebor, refusing to help even his cousin. The three armies are being decimated, but still Thorin does nothing. We find Thorin deep in the dwarven compound and watch his internal struggle. He finally comes out of the Dragon Sickness to help his family and friends.

            He takes three of his companions to the fortress of Azog “to cut the head off the snake” to paraphrase Gandalf.  We watch Thorin and Azog’s final battle (Azog killed Thorin’s grandfather, remember…). Fili and Tauriel resolve their affection with one another – both events done with a sense of finality – especially if you know what was going to happen (I am so glad I read the book before seeing the movie).  The inevitable knowledge of the fate of some of the dwarven company made me sad during the movie.

***

            (MILD SPOILER) Near the end, the fifth army of the title appears to save the day. No surprise, it is the same “army” who saved the day in three of the past five LOTR movies…).It’s getting to be a bit of a joke … but Beorn’s appearance was cool!(END OF SPOILERS)

***

            The aftermath, while not as sad and wistful as “Return of the King” is so, nonetheless. This really is our last visit to Jackson’s Middle Earth and we say goodbye to our friends. But seeds are planted foreshadowing the “LOTR” movies. Thranduil and Legolas make an uneasy peace: father telling son to seek out Rangers from the North, one in particular named Strider, whose real identity Legolas must discover himself; Gandalf tells Bilbo to take care of the ring (in the book Bilbo reveals he has a magic ring early on; in this movie series it was always a secret).

            The movie series ends as it begins, with Ian Holm as Bilbo writing his memoir “A Hobbit’s Tale, or There and Back Again”

***

            People who do not like the genre will probably not like the film. But they didn’t like the LOTR movies either. “Return of the King’s” Oscar sweep won’t happen here. As epic as these Hobbit movies have been, they were made to complete the circle.

            In previous blogs I discussed the detractions of this second series of Middle Earth movies: the necessity of making it three films to keep the money machine rolling, etc. But I didn’t think of such things watching this movie. I went in expecting to enjoy it and I did. Obviously, as is always the case with multi-part movies, if you have not seen the first two, I’d recommend renting them and watching them first. You’ll be lost.

            The chase scenes that plagued the first two movies are not present here. The battles probably go on longer than necessary (most notably Thorin/Azog), but they are divided out proportionately and I never got the urge to go out to the lobby for a while.

            One thing missing in this movie that was prominent in the prior five Jackson/Tolkien epics was the celebration of the small. All through LOTR was the idea that even a little person can make a big difference. My blog of the movie “An Unexpected Party” was rife with the joy of the small.  And although Gandalf mentioned that theme in his parting words to Bilbo, it was there in words only. Like “Return of the King”, here we faced a battle that would be sung about for ages. Unlike “Return…”, the very small had no part. It’s the fault of the novel, really. Bilbo got knocked out early on and had to be told how the battle ended. Not quite the case in this movie, but still … one small person (embodied by Bilbo in this series and Frodo and Sam in the first) made no difference in this movie. And not just in the actual battle – his attempts at brokering peace failed; his attempt at breaking Thorin of his Dragon Sickness failed.

            “Return of the King’s” climax was not only a battle to end an age, but also featured a pair of small everyday people saving the world. In “Battle of the Five Armies” the climax featured kings battling kings.  A grand feast, but I yearned for the small tasty dessert at the end.

            I left the theater knowing I enjoyed a complete story, but also knowing it was prequel …

            Put another way: the novel The Hobbit is a satisfying and complete read.  Although I will probably read LOTR in the near future I was not filled with the desire to read it immediately after putting The Hobbit down.

            The movie “The Hobbit”, although completely satisfying, is not satisfyingly complete.

            The LOTR movie trilogy was always in the background;  always there to compare itself with the Hobbit trilogy. As good as “The Hobbit” trilogy is – and it will stand the test of time as well as the LOTR movies – it will always stand in the shadow of its bigger cinematic brother. Something the novel does not suffer.

            Put yet another way: this movie was a great set-up for the LOTR movies – now one can spend an entire weekend watching the six movies instead of “just” an entire day. And as fun and complete and satisfying as it was – it is still also a great set-up for the LOTR movies.  A great opening act is still just the opening act …

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***

            Did 3D help the movie? No. This was my first 3D film since the trend returned with “Avatar” and I was not too impressed.  Two scenes were incredibly well-done, I will say: the battle with the Nazgul and Legolas’s fight on the stone bridge.  If the whole movie were of that caliber I would go buy a 3D television – do they still sell those?

            Otherwise it looked as if I was watching a Viewmaster reel. Things in the front were too blurry and some obvious takes – Thorin holding his sword toward the camera as he walked – took the magic away by reminding me I was in a theater watching a movie in “3D!!! (insert echo)”

            And 3D ruins any forced perspective. The magic of suspended disbelief in Peter Jackson’s six movies were based not only on CGI but on forced perspective. Here when a human talks to a dwarf or hobbit you can see how far away they are from each other due to the 3D/Viewmaster perspective.  A shame.

***

            So go see “Battle of the Five Armies” – enjoy visiting with old friends one last time – just like the advertising campaign says.  We probably won’t see another treatment of LOTR or the Hobbit on this scale in our lifetimes. At first I was upset that I had to see this last movie alone. In the prior five films I was surrounded by my family and friends.  But as the movie started I realized I was still among some very old and dear friends … and enjoyed it immensely!

 

Original Material Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

A late review of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

A review of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

from Seven Chapters, shown in Three-D

Part One

(does any of this add up?)

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                This review contains mild spoilers of the movie as well as MAJOR spoilers of the five prior Tolkien movies by Peter Jackson … I tried to make this pretty safe to read. Keep in mind, this movie is based on a work that is seventy years old, available free online and is a major piece of fiction in Western Civilization, to complain that I “ruined” your pleasure by revealing facts of the movie is just plain silly.

                If you don’t know the outcome of the story by now, or that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, the chick in “The Crying Game” is really a man, Rosebud was a sled, and/or continue to be tricked by any plot twist of a movie from M Night Shamalamadingdong movie; you need to crawl back into your cave…

                Note: to avoid confusion, book titles are underlined, “movie titles” are in quotes…

***

                Just as you should watch the first two films before seeing this movie, you need to read my blogs about the prior films first!

https://michaelgcurry.com/2013/01/03/114/

https://michaelgcurry.com/2013/12/29/42/

***

Hobbit 1

            Christmas Eve day we planned on seeing the third movie of Peter Jackson’s version of “The Hobbit”. This third installment is called “The Battle of the Five Armies”.

            On the way to the theater my daughter’s day care called and said she was running a fever. We brought her home, gave her some medicine (her pediatrician called back right away and called in a prescription quite quickly!) and she felt better by Christmas Day. During the 24th she was quiet and mellow and spent most of the afternoon lying on the couch or snuggling with Mommy and/or Daddy.

            Just before her afternoon nap my wife said I could go see the movie by myself if I wanted to. I didn’t. I wanted to see it with her. But all I would otherwise do that day, just as my little girl would do, is to sit around the house and lie quietly … I was going to see the movie again on New Year’s Eve Day when my wife worked and I did not … it would give me a chance to do some last-minute Christmas shopping when it was over.

            Well, why not?

            We missed the 10:00am show, but there were more at noon and 1:30. The noon showing was in 3D. I had never seen a modern-day 3D movie – the last one I saw was one of the Nightmare on Elm Street thingies from the 1980s. And the noon showing would get me out of the theater sooner and home by four or so …

            Again, why not?

            I watched the first Hobbit movie many times in the theater and on blu-ray, and although I have the second one in disc, I had yet to watch it! I haven’t seen it since it was in the theaters! The weekend before I watched the second movie again. Because of the new material in the movies and the cliff-hanging ending of the second movie, I was afraid I would be a bit lost watching this third movie at first. I’m glad I watched “The Desolation of Smaug” to refresh my memory.

            Earlier in the month of December, on a whim, I decided to re-read The Hobbit novel -I had not read it since I was in New York during the birth of my child; and then it was only the second time I read the book (I have read Lord of the Rings five or six times by now…). I finished it that weekend – the evening after I finished the book I watched the second movie.

            “Why!?” the nay-sayers shout. “This travesty has nothing to do with the book!” Not altogether true. The movies are wonderful fun. There are new scenes and characters, true, but as I said in my previous blogs … who cares? Who wouldn’t want to spend more time on Middle Earth and meet new friends?

            And I’m glad I read the book again. It helped me remember what happened – Thorin’s gold-fever and who survived (and who didn’t survive) the battle.  The deaths of some of the friends we made during this series is fore-ordained – what about our new friends? Whither their fate? Hmm?

            “Battle of the Five Armies” picks up right after “Desolation of Smaug” ended. Smaug wings his way to Laketown – convinced they were in on the dwarves incursion into his mountain. Bard, the human fisherman/smuggler descended from the ruler of Dale (thus making him an early draft of Aragorn), is locked away in a Laketown cell.

            Smaug’s attack is awesome in the adult sense of the word.  Terrifying. Stephen Frye returns as Laketown’s Master whose escape tries to provide comic relief, but we are too swept up in the townspeople’s attempt to flee to really laugh at the Master and his toady Alfred’s cowardly acts.  Alfred becomes a thorn in Bard’s side throughout most of the movie. Not as inherently evil as Wormtongue from “Two Towers”, but just as oily …

            Bard escapes, finds his family, retrieves the black arrow and faces Smaug. The result is similar to the book and to anyone who saw its obvious foreshadowing in “Desolation…”.

            Then the credits roll…

            The next third of the movie builds up the war envisioned in the title.  As in the novel, Bard and the Laketowners make refuge on the shore and ask Thorin’s company for reparations. We see Thorin’s descent into gold fever (or dragon sickness as it is called in the movie) as he refuses to keep his word to the Laketowners. His fever grows as he demands his company find the legendary Arkenstone amongst the treasure hoard, eventually suspecting even his kinfolk of duplicity – an act unthinkable in dwarves to their allies and kin.

            Thranduil, the elven king from Mirkwood, and his army of elves appear with supplies for the Laketown refugees.  Rather than being beneficent, as in the novel, Thranduil comes to the Lonely Mountain to get back his people’s diamond jewels kept there.  Thus he and Bard demand what they think is rightfully theirs.  The audience believes this, too.  The film does a convincing job showing us Thorin’s greed without making him a true villain.  Bilbo and the other company often remark (even to the great King’s face to their peril) that this is not the Thorin they knew and followed loyally.  We side with the men and elves, but sympathize with the dwarves.

            Orc armies are marching to Erebor (the Lonely Mountain). In the novel, they marched when they learned Smaug was dead and his treasure hoard was up for grabs! Here, the reasons link in with the ”Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy …

            When we last left Gandalf in “Desolation…” he was the caged prisoner of the Necromancer, revealed to be Sauron.  He watches Azog’s orc army march to Erebor at Sauron’s command. The Lonely Mountain is of strategic importance (Sauron has no need for coins and baubles). It is the initial step in his conquest of the West.

            Gandalf escapes in a thrilling battle between the Ringwraiths and the White Council. After five movies we finally get to watch Elrond and even Saruman kick ass. Galadriel’s confrontation with Sauron is terrifying and well done – reminding us of the glimpse of her true power in “The Fellowship of the Ring”. The look on Saruman’s face when Sauron appears makes the movie fans giggle in delight: is this the point he begins to turn to the dark side? Has it happened already and he stops fighting when his master is revealed?

            Bilbo attempts to negotiate a peace, by “betraying” Thorin. By now we are, of course, on Bilbo’s side here, so the betrayal was from Thorin, not the hobbit. The negotiation tactic does not work, Thorin is even MORE infuriated and he and his dwarven companions prepare for war…

            In honor of the movies, this review is split into two unnecessary parts … 

             … to be continued…

Original Material Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

A Christmas Carol at the Fabulous Fox; a review

A Review of A Christmas Carol

The Nebraska Theater Caravan, Fox Theater, St. Louis, Missouri

cast

On December 13, 2014 my wife and I attended a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at the Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis, MO as performed by the Nebraska Theater Caravan.

“The Nebraska Theater Caravan is the professional touring wing of the Omaha Community Playhouse” says their website: http://www.nebraskatheatrecaravan.org/

“In 1979 the Caravan started touring the Charles Jones adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ nationally with one company touring the Midwest. Three years later in 1982 another company was added to tour the East Coast and a third to tour the West Coast in 1987.”

It was my second trip to the Fox this year – I went this summer with my sister and nephew to watch the Monkees! That blog/review begins here: https://michaelgcurry.com/2014/06/09/come-and-watch-us-sing-and-play-the-monkees-live-in-st-louis/

Before that I had not been to the Fabulous Fox since seeing … “A Christmas Carol” as performed by the Nebraska Theater Company back in 1988 (or 1989)!

I don’t remember much of that production. My sister and father remember is being amateurish.  I remember enjoying the music and their handling of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (a huge hulking thing with long arms likely operated by a man inside on a stand with pool cues for arms).

I remember my mother taking our photograph (my sister and I) amidst the holiday-decorated-yet-maintaining-their-Edwardian/Persian splendor of the Fox Theater. That I remember clearly. The play itself? Not so much…

I wonder why I do not remember. In December 1988 I had moved to Carbondale from Springfield ten months prior and worked as an overnight disc jockey. I would have been more looking forward to a solid night’s sleep than an evening’s entertainment. If it were in 1989 I had just started law school and recovering from my first final exams. My lapse of memory is more explicable in that case…

If it were as bad as my sister and father remembered I certainly would have remembered that, too; if only because I would continue to skewer it to this day! I don’t remember my mother discussing it. I imagine she loved it if for no other reason that my father didn’t. And as is always the case with my mother I would give all I have except my wife and daughter to be able to ask her even just that trivial question.

So driving to the theater I worried – what if this thing stinks? I’d be out the cost of tickets, the motel, the cost of gas – just to see a piece of tripe that a high school could do better (to paraphrase my dad)?

I needn’t have worried.

Check the blogs with the Christmas tag and you will see how much I love “A Christmas Carol”.  https://michaelgcurry.com/2014/12/04/christmas-reading-a-christmas-carol/

A multi-blog review of many adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” begins here: https://michaelgcurry.com/2012/12/02/131/

I start reading the book every evening of Thanksgiving, if possible, and can usually finish it by that Sunday night (I used to be able to read it in one sitting pre-daughter); and love watching all the adaptations. Even the stinkers.  I was looking forward to seeing as good stage production of the story – what would they include? Exclude? Did they add anything as so many of the movies/TV specials do?

This version is a musical. Not a musical as in the excellent 1970 movie with Albert Finney and Alec Guinness as Marley (every time I see his entrance I cannot help but say, “Go to Degobah, Scrooge, and learn from Yoda … sorry, wrong ghost…”) in which the lines are sung and/or a song conveys the feeling of the song. This musical is peppered with carols from the time – Victorian England (and before).

The songs were the highlight of the show – it was the only part of the prior production I recall, remember – opening the curtain with “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – a canny choice (I don’t mean that in a bad way). The main cast rarely joined in the carols – it was the background cast – townsfolk, party guests, etc.

The song list included Gloucestershire Wassail (a song prominent in the pitch-perfect George C Scott television Carol), The Boar’s Head Carol (my wife knew this rare tune from her madrigal days), the usual choices of The Holly and the Ivy and Here We Come A-Wassailing. Dancing Day was a treat – a song one rarely hears on the radio amidst the third-airing-in-as-many-hours of Feliz Navidad … the only time I heard it is when I played it myself as a DJ. Particularly Paul Winter’s version on my NPR show. Lovely tune!).

Coventry Carol was especially beautiful.

The sets were lovely and well-made. There were four basic sets: the curtain opened on the Londontown street on which set the office of Scrooge and Marley and their neighbor, a toy shop. A soup cart and a woolen clothier cart bookended the entryway into the neighborhood. The poulterer was on the backdrop.

Twirling the storefront of Scrooge and Marley revealed the inside of Scrooge’s office. Two tables and chairs were wheeled in.

The toy store was turned revealing Scrooge’s fireplace. The same backdrop was used for Scrooge’s office, the Cratchit’s home and Scrooge’s bedroom. Those were wheeled offstage for Fred’s home and Fezziwig’s office (the tables and seats from Scrooge’s office were wisely recycled.

Sets were moved about the stage professionally and without incident. My sister recalls Marley falling against the fireplace which shuddered revealing its plywood-cheapness – much like the walls shuddering while slamming doors on “Plan Nine From Outer Space”. No such thing happened that night.

And costumes were lovely – pure Victorian splendor. It would fit in with any production of Oliver, a Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper tale.

The story itself was adapted very well considering the limited set. The play opens on the Londontown street, as mentioned, with Fred greeting the other businessmen and women in front of his uncle’s counting house.  This sets up his generous and friendly nature.

The sets twirl and move to the inside of Scrooge’s office. Here we meet Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. Freezing Bob is threatened with unemployment as he sneaks to the coal bin, Fred and his uncle exchange their unpleasantries, and the two Charity Men (as they are called in the Playbill) are unceremoniously booted with all the familiar dialogue. Child carolers invade the office and are chased off by Scrooge. He physically carries one girl and dumps her in the doorway.  “You’ll want the whole day, tomorrow, I suppose …” etc. A twirling of the set allows Scrooge to go outside and demand payment of back rent from the various businessmen and women. “One more day, sir, please.” “It will cost you another half-crown, or I’ll take the entire cart! Sign here…”

To Scrooge’s chambers: Marley’s face appears on the wall thanks to a projection and comes through the fireplace – Scrooge goes to the smoking fireplace and opens the way for his fellow actor. Marley is bathed in keep green. Very well done lighting effect here. They include the toothpick scene deleted from many versions (“… but I see it nonetheless…”).

The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by Kristen Conrad – she is an adult wearing a bright red Victorian dress (she is neither a child nor a crone or a mix as in the book). Young Scrooge, teen Scrooge rescued by sister Fan, Fezziwig’s party (at which Scrooge and Belle become engaged – he gets on his knees at the end of the scene and presents her a ring), Scrooge’s and Belle’s breakup. The only missing bit – and this part usually is – is the “extinguishing” of the Ghost’s light with the huge candle-snuffer.  Like some adaptations, Belle is Fezziwig’s daughter – this isn’t in the book but adds more pathos to Scrooge fall into coldness.

The Ghosts and Scrooge travel on his bed. It is the only piece of scenery not pushed or pulled into and out of scenes by the cast. It must have a small electric motor underneath. It was moved throughout quietly and expertly.

The Ghost of Christmas Present was dressed in all his green Father Christmas glory – huge beard, fur-trimmed robe, etc. He even had what looked like real candles on his crown of holly! The Cratchit home, Fred’s party. Missing were the usual suspects in this part of the story (Christmas Present certainly gets short shrift during most tales …): the blessing of poor tables, the political “debate” between the Ghost and Scrooge, the men almost fighting in the street, the coal miners, the lighthouse keepers, the ship at sea and Ignorance and Want.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was described previously – the businessmen discussing his death (“…only if lunch is provided…”), the Cratchits mourning the loss of Tiny Tim, Scrooge facing his own tombstone. Instead of the scene with the undertaker, washerwoman and charwoman at Old Joe’s fence, it takes place in Scrooge’s room with only the washerwoman and the charwoman stripping the blanket, the bed curtains and Scrooge’s purse from the body lying on the bed.

Scrooge awakes Christmas morning and asks a girl (not a “fine lad”) to buy the prize turkey. During a musical interlude there is a cute scene of the girl “pounding” on the door of the poulterer’s on the backdrop. The poulterer tosses her out twice before she shows him Scrooge’s money – she’s NOT kidding! Scrooge leaves his office and forgives the debt of the businessmen and women on his street. He offers a huge sum to the Charity Men to atone. He sees Fred walking down the street, meets his niece and finally accepts his invitation to dinner. Scrooge, Fred, his wife and the businessmen and women help Scrooge take all the toys and clothing (purchased from his former debtors) to the Cratchits, where he doubles his salary, vows to make Tim well and God Bless Us Everyone.

Here the scene (and the show) ends. The book ends at Scrooge’s office but all those scenes take place at Cratchit’s home. Because of the limitation of the stage, doing those scenes at the Cratchit’s makes sense – and many movie and television adaptations use that tactic as well. It was a canny move and not unexpected.  Scrooge offers to pay for a doctor he knows to visit Tim the next day. This has been in a few movies, but not in the book – only that Scrooge vowed to help Tim become better.

This adaptation by Charles Jones is quite good. The variations from the book – the things left out and the things included – are not jolting. Only purists also offended by the film and television adaptations will not like it. Plus the inclusion of authentic carols from the period adds to the pleasantries.

I can’t emphasize how lovely the music and singing is. A Coventry Carol was the highlight of the evening.

The acting was very good, too. This is probably the only fault I found, but my lack of utter enjoyment is solely my own. Let me explain:

I should have known I was not about to see a serious treatise of the book. Most of the other media’s adaptations have bits of humor, yes: George C Scott’s mumbling at the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that he is “devilishly hard to have a conversation with…” still makes me laugh out loud. But even then it is subtle.

That this play would have over-the-top humor and that the acting would be melodramatic was a surprise to me. But I soon got over that and once I realized the cast wanted to have fun and wanted us to have fun I enjoyed it. If I wanted to sit in the audience nodding with stern face I would attend Shakespeare-in-the-park.

One issue I could not overcome was the melodrama. The Fox Theater is well equipped with a modern sound system; we can hear you. You don’t have to shout (and in some cases shriek) your lines. There were times Scrooge forgot the sound system and went back to his booming baritone mid-sentence.  The playbill said the actor also performed in “1776”. He would have been great cast in any role in my favorite musical – I wonder what he played? My bet? Delaware’s Col. McKeon or South Carolina’s Rutledge.

scrooge

            Scrooge was excellently played by Paul Kerr. He is in the photographs I swiped from Google. I liked his Scrooge! A lot! He wasn’t a miserly penny-pincher. Even the best adaptations make that mistake. Scrooge is not Jack Benny having a bad day. Miserliness is only a part of the problem: coldness of the soul is the problem.

Kerr’s Scrooge is mean, impatient and sarcastic as well as being stingy. Dickens describes Scrooge as having not much wit, but Kerr’s does and it fits the character here. His sometimes over-the-top performance fit the fun times had by the cast and audience. The humor was never inappropriate to the play. There were no nods to a modern audience so prevalent in humorous versions of Carol.

“Merry Christmas,” said the carolers.  “Merry GO AWAY!”  shouted Scrooge from his window.  “Leave me alone,” he barked at a persistent beggar.  In his chambers he faced away from his fireplace, pulled up his nightgown and rubbed his butt to the warm fire. Who doesn’t do that? He groaned every time he sat down to slurp his gruel.

The other cast also performed splendidly.  The Ghosts were glowingly condescending. The Cratchits sympathetic and likable.  The few actors who overacted so much as to shock Shatner  weren’t onstage long enough to grate and overshadow otherwise fine performances.

Primarily here I mean Jon McDonald.  His portrayal of an overzealous Fezziwig (his biggest role) made me tolerate his over-exertion, but his over-the-top silliness as one of the Charity Men made us laugh at him, not his lines.

The screechiness of the washerwoman and the charwoman made their lines nearly indecipherable. If one is not familiar with the story one would have no idea what they were saying.

And I do not know who the character was in the scene at Fred’s house during the party game Yes and No. After many guesses of what manner of undesirable creature Topper was thinking of, an actress took center stage and sang her answer in a high squeal. One presumes she said, “Ebenezer Scrooge” – if only because that was the answer in the story and the rest of the cast reacted as if that is what she said, but her manner of delivery – intending to make me laugh, made me scratch my head at their gibberish.

But as I said, those moments were thankfully few and far between in this lovely performance. It’s the same old story: what’s better than a perfect evening? An otherwise perfect evening with only one thing wrong that I can nitpick the rest of my days…

Children – not small children the age of my daughter, but children old enough to know and appreciate the story – will LOVE it! Even the over-the-top performances (I suspect those are done with the children in mind). And there were lots of youngsters in the audience that night. It was a good mix of ages, gender and social strata in that night’s audiences. Blue jeans and suits and ties all present.

I noted on the way home that it was odd with all the racial trouble St. Louis/Ferguson was facing lately we were looking at an all-white cast, Tim Abou-Nasr as Topper notwithstanding.

And, by the way, Tim did a wonderful job making Topper a pleasant character. In Patrick Stewart’s woefully unloved TV movie version, the producers of the film did something no other version has done with Topper – create a character in “A Christmas Carol” more unlikable than Scrooge. If this were a modern version he would be played by Bill Cosby. But not this version, not played by Tim. Bravo…

My wife said it reminded her of the musical “Scrooge” from 1970. I agree. Scrooge going from store to store collecting the mortgages (I even whispered “Thank you very much” to my wife during this scene); the toys sent to Cratchits on Christmas morning.  Well, why not? If you are doing to emulate and be reminiscent of another version of “A Christmas Carol” they picked a good one!

This troupe plays until December 23rd in Colorado, according to their website. They will tour the US next year as they have for many decades. Will they be in St. Louis or Cape Girardeau as they were this year? I hope so!

There is no guarantee it will be the same actors in the same parts, but go see it regardless.

Take your children.

Enjoy the play, enjoy the music, enjoy the holidays…

And God bless us, every one!!

 tiny tim

Photographs were obtained through Google images and are copyrighted by their respective holders (not known) and used here under the Fair Use Doctrine as commentary and criticism.

Original material copyright 2014 Michael Curry