Thursday, September 27, 2012

Missed Chances: "The House With a Clock in its Walls"

When I was a kid I often rode my bike a few miles to the little library in the town where I lived.  There I perused the stacks for hours before coming home with a nice selection of books.  I can still remember often seeing John Bellairs' The House With a Clock in its Walls on the shelf and I recall reading the summation of the story on the back of the book but for some reason I never took it home... until now.

It's never too late to have a happy childhood so I decided to take a look at the story and see how it read to an adult... and the results were quite surprising...

The basic plot is that young Lewis Barnavelt's parents are killed and so he is sent to live with his uncle, Jonathan, in the town of New Zebedee.  Lewis also meets Jonathan's best friend and next-door-neighbor Mrs. Florence Zimmerman.  The boy quickly finds himself adjusting not just to a new home but also to the discovery that his uncle Jonathan is a minor wizard and Mrs. Zimmerman a much more powerful witch!

To complicate matters Jonathan's house once belonged to an evil wizard and witch and the faint ticking of a clock can be heard throughout the house but the clock it belongs to cannot be found!  Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman believe this clock is a final curse left behind by it's former owners -- a curse that could spell the end of everything!  Lewis must learn a few hard life lessons along the way to solving the mystery and saving the day before the clock strikes doomsday!

One of the first things that strikes you in reading this book is how straightforward everything is.  Bellairs presents his characters with a kind of frankness and honesty that makes them feel real.  They have certain quirks and eccentricities but nothing that makes them seem any more off-beat than that aunt or uncle every family seems to have who is the 'odd' member of the family (and usually the one who is the life of the family get-togethers).   Lewis's Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are also, unlike most adults in children's literature, not useless, or completely stupid.  Certainly they try to disguise some of the truth from Lewis but only in an attempt to keep him from being frightened.  They act out of caring and love not idiocy or selfishness.  And Lewis himself is believably shy, insecure, and desperate for friendship in his new situation.

Even magic in the story is presented rather matter-of-factly which transforms it from the realm of the mystical into something that seems everyday -- of no more matter than flicking on a television set or booting up a computer.  It is surprisingly refreshing in this post-Harry Potter realm of youth literature.

On the whole, if you've never introduced this book to the kids in your life (be they yours or someone else's) then do so.  Have no fears about the book reading as something out of time or out of touch with modern life.  There is an honesty here as well as a really solid adventure that moves at a measured pace and builds to a climax.  With all of the youth literature now being committed to film it does make me wonder why no one has placed this story in front of a camera yet.  The House With a Clock in its Walls is tailor-made for the big screen.  As it is, set it loose on the big screen of imagination and watch the whole thing play out.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Showcase Presents: The Brave and The Bold, vol. 1

Okay... this one is going to require a little bit more of a history lesson than my last review.  And you know how much I love history...  No.  Really.  I love this stuff.  If you don't, skip down below the cover image where I will get into the volume proper.  Otherwise settle in.

Remember a couple of posts back when I said I'd get into the reason why DC called their black and white reprint line Showcase Presents?  Well, here's where I make good on that promise.

In 1956 DC Comics launched a title called Showcase which was a 'try out' book.  The title would feature new characters or old characters with a new spin put on them.  DC would then gauge reader reaction to these characters and if they did well enough they were then launched into their own solo titles.  It should be made clear that this wasn't a one-shot deal -- a character often appeared several times in Showcase before DC made a decision on whether they would go on to solo stardom or disappear into the archives.

Showcase was essentially *the* comic that launched the Silver Age.  Most comic book historians (yes, such people exist) date the start of the Silver Age to the first appearance of the revamped Flash in 1956.  And where did the Flash premiere in 1956?  On the pages of Showcase.  So DC choosing to call their black and white Silver Age reprint series Showcase Presents has a significance to both the history of DC and the history of comic books in general.  It's a nice touch that, to be honest, I like a little better than Marvel's comparatively bland Essential title (which is also a little disingenuous now that I think about it.  I mean, "Essential" implies that it's the kind of 'best-of-the-best' or the stuff that's vital to understanding a character and, really, every character out there has some long stretches of stuff that was kind of the comic book equivalent of jogging in place.  And I would hardly call that "Essential"... but I'm getting off track)...  What, I'm an historian I like it when people tip their hats to history!

Now, if you're expecting this series to be like the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon you'll be sadly disappointed... or happy depending on how you felt about that particular cartoon.

That animated series was inspired by this comic book series but the two are really polar opposites... as you will soon see...

The Brave and the Bold as a title originally began in 1955.  At the time of it's launch, however, it was used to tell stories about non-superhero characters.  Over the next decade or so The Brave and the Bold went from stories about knights and Robin Hood to another try-out book for new characters to finally being a 'team-up' book.

For the first few issues of it's team-up days writers basically mashed together any two heroes in the DC stable at that time.  For example, Green Arrow could team up with the Atom or Aquaman could team up with the Flash if the writer had a good story to tell.  That, however, quickly changed as the popularity of Batman, thanks to the 1960's TV series, swept the country.  The Brave and the Bold suddenly and pretty much irrevocably changed to being a "Batman and...." team-up book as each issue Batman teamed up with another DC hero.  So what DC is here calling Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 is actually only those issues of the series where they started featuring Batman.

So how is it?...... a little weird, and a slice of history.

The writer responsible for most of the content in those days was Bob Haney.  Haney was one of those 'work horse writers' who populated the Silver Age.  Guys like Gardner Fox and Haney churned out story after story.  They were often simplistic, thin on characterization, and started and finished in a single issue, but guys from this era really cranked the stuff out.

Haney created a number of characters but the ones he would probably be most familiar for today were Sgt. Rock and the Teen Titans.  Of course, he didn't create the individual characters who made up the early Titans -- Robin, Speedy (Green Arrow's side-kick), Aqualad (Aquaman's sidekick), Kid Flash (guess who's sidekick), and Wonder Girl (again, guess who's sidekick) -- but it was his idea to put them together in a team-up story and the idea took off to the point where they soon had their own title which Haney was scripting.

But we're here to talk about the stories in this volume.

If nothing else you have to give Haney his due in the difficulty in scripting these stories.  Think about it, you have Batman -- a basically normal guy with no real superpowers and only a beltful of gadgets -- and he's often teaming up with heroes who far outpower him.  For example, Wonder Woman -- who has super strength, super speed, and the ability of flight.  In trying to put these two together in a story you have to come up with a villain and a situation which is powerful enough to cause difficulties for Wonder Woman but yet vulnerable enough that it would be believable for Batman to be helping out instead of just getting swatted out of the way like an ant.  It can be a delicate balancing act and it's one that Haney mostly manages well.


I mentioned that the stories here are "a little weird" and I mean it.  I'm a fan of Silver Age stuff.  The wacky pseudo-science gives me a chuckle and the clunky dialogue and bad attempts at topical stories and teen angst and street slang are hilarious but that stuff here, in these stories, just never quite clicks.  There is a bit too much silly science and bad slang that it just pulls you too far out of the story.  In addition, there are some examples of the casual misogyny of the times that makes me cringe.  One story in particular in which Batman tries to lure the villain Copperhead into stealing a priceless artifact by making Copperhead think he's too distracted by Wonder Woman and Batgirl fighting for his affections to guard the city.  The twist being that while Wonder Woman and Batgirl were at first pretending in order to help Batman flush out Copperhead at the worst possible moment they really fall for him!... And then just as suddenly fall back out of love with him at the end... for no good reason... except that they're women and that's just what women do don't you know.  Ugh!

Anyway, as I was saying, not only are the stories a little too silly but they also tend to have plot holes you could drive a tractor-trailer through... sideways.  Take, for example, a story featuring Batman teaming up with WW II soldier Sgt. Rock.  The story mostly takes place during WW II where Bruce Wayne is acting as a secret agent on a mission to find and destroy a mysterious Nazi secret weapon.  The problem is that Bruce is recounting the story in the then present day of the 1960's -- where even if he had been in his early 20's during WWII it would now put him over 40 -- and he is drawn in the comic as not looking a day over 35.  Not only that but Bruce has never been allowed to age over about 37 except in the case of the version of him on the parallel world of Earth-2 but this story never says it's and Earth-2 story so....  I'm confused!....

And you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.  Suffice it to say the timelines just don't work here.

So, you might be asking after I've rambled on this long, is there anything GOOD about these stories?  Well, yes... and here's where the 'slice of history' thing comes in.

After the Silver Age came what most comics historians call the Bronze Age.  There are some arguments over where it officially starts and ends but it's roughly the 1970's through the mid-1980's.  As the 1970's saw a lot of social changes and a lot of pop culture changes as well comic books followed suit.

For example, the 1970's saw a rise in a new breed of horror movies.  There was a fascination with the occult in pop culture and we see those influences start to creep in amongst these stories.  And here Haney managed the change rather well.  We see him begin the volume with bright, very Silver Age stories with silly, gimmick-y villains and we see him finish with more weighty stories about evil and family and villains who blend in with everyday life -- as well as some who wear the mask of upstanding citizens. 

We also see reflected the changes wrought in characters -- Early on we see the more Golden Age version of Green Arrow but towards the end of the volume we meet a new, more modern GA with a new look, a new costume, and a new attitude which includes questions and doubts about his superhero career.  Likewise, we have that rather stereotypical story with Wonder Woman acting a bit like a 'silly female' but later we run into the 'new Wonder Woman'...  I guess I have to explain again...  At one point The Powers That Be felt that Wonder Woman should be depowered in order to relate more to 'ordinary women'.  It was a move that, reportedly, editorial thought would go over well with the women's movement in the country at that time.  It didn't.  Still, it lasted for quite a few years.  During this period Wonder Woman renounced her Amazon heritage and with it all her powers -- no more super-strength, speed, flight, nor even bullet-deflecting bracelets.  Instead Wonder Woman learned martial arts from a blind mentor named.... (I can't believe I'm writing this)... I Ching.  I wish I was kidding.  Wonder Woman was even given a new, white, 'action costume' that had more than a nod to Emma Peel of the British Avengers fame.  Anyway, we see that change in the character reflected in the stories in this volume.

In shortwith The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 you can actually see the Silver Age turning into the Bronze Age of comics and I, for one, find the changes and they way they happen here, to be fascinating.

The other thing to mention is some of the artwork.  There are some big names here like Ramona Fradon and Gil Kane and Mike Sekowsky but the biggest deal is the swath of stories toward the end of the volume featuring the art of Neal Adams.  Moody, heavily shaded, dynamic, at times creepy and at times psychedelic, Adams' work heralded a new art style which would soon sweep the comic book world and kind of reflect the Bronze Age as well.  This is some of Adams' first work for DC but he would go on to become regular artist for Batman for quite some time and is still considered one of the premiere Batman artists.  His style has become classic and almost remarkably you can see here that, despite only just getting started at DC, his style is already almost fully formed.  Even with the color stripped out his stuff is gorgeous to look at.  Heck, with the color stripped out it looks in some ways even better as it emphasizes the noir touches to his work.

So, enough is enough and it's time for a roundup...  The first time I read this volume I loved it.  I loved all the strangeness and the wildness of seeing Batman team up with characters who were not necessarily a natural fit for him -- like Plastic Man or the Metal Men.  On a recent re-reading though the flaws hit me and I found myself all-too-willing to put the volume down and not come back to it for a few days.  It didn't drag me in and compel me to read the stories.  The silliness and the plot holes were just too front-and-center and they disturbed my reading enjoyment too much.

The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 is probably worth a purchase if you're an amateur comic book historian like me.  It is still worth a look though so if you can pick it up at a discount or better yet at your local library go ahead and then skim through it hitting the better stories and the Neal Adams art.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Essential Captain America, Vol. 1

And after a brief delay, here we go...

First up is Essential Captain America, vol. 1.

A little background before we begin...

Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, published by Marvel's predecessor Timely Comics.

With the dawn of WW II Cap was not alone in the patriotic style heroes who graced the pages of various comics from various publishers and, like most of those heroes, he didn't survive much past the end of the war -- disappearing by the early 1950's.  There was a brief revival of the character in 1953, refashioned into a patriotic Commie Basher to try to appeal to the 'Red Scare' days but this not only didn't work it provided a hiccup in the character's history which Marvel eventually had to deal with... but that is for another day.

In 1964 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby dusted the character off and gave him a prominent place with Marvel's still-rather-young superteam The Avengers.  With Cap seemingly catching on with readers it was time to give him his own title... sort of... which is also where we come in with this volume.

Cap actually began appearing in a title called Tales of Suspense which was a kind of two-in-one comic at that time.  Half of the comic was devoted to stories featuring Iron Man and the other half to Captain America stories.  The two heroes traded off monthly on getting the cover image and lead position in the comic.  Eventually, both Cap and Iron Man proved popular enough to be launched into their own series'.  The stories in this volume cover the years 1964-1968 and cover the transition from Tales of  Suspense to Cap's solo title with all of them being written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby.

So how is it actually?

Not bad.  There are a lot of Silver Age conventions here -- villains who give big monologuing speeches and insist on keeping the hero alive and around in order to 'gloat over their victory', clunky dialogue, and really, really, seriously bad pseudo-science (really).  At the same time, the stories are action-packed and move along at breakneck speed without any padding or long, drawn out, story arcs. 

On the flip side, that breakneck speed doesn't really allow for too much character development -- particularly for the villains.  The villains are villainous and we may get an origin story for them but they don't really become fully rounded characters here.

The other thing that sets these stories apart is a clear view of what was called "the Marvel style" at that time.  Marvel is credited with giving it's heroes faults, failings, and foibles and also with giving them soap opera style stories in the Silver Age.  With Cap this is manifest by him brooding about being a "man out of time", and feeling responsible for the death of his partner, Bucky, and also losing the love of his life in WW II and then in the modern era being drawn to a woman who resembled his lost love only for them to be kept apart due to him being a superhero and her being a S.H.E.I.L.D. Agent.

The problem is that, to a modern reader, these elements are a bit overdone.  Cap remarks on his "age" and how he should be an "old man" like other WW II vets are but at the time this comic was written WW II was only about 20 years in the rear view mirror!  The "old men" who were his fellow vets were likely only in their early 40's through their early 50's!  About half the cast of the recent Avengers movie were over 40 and I doubt any of those actors would have thought of themselves as "old men"!  Modern, changed attitudes about age have made a lot of Cap's meditations on the subject seem whiny.

And speaking of whiny... Cap's brooding about his past probably seemed novel and invoked sympathy in readers of the time but here the dialogue comes across as kind of emo.  This is exacerbated by the fact that, in the 1960's, comic books were almost exclusively sold at newspaper stands and on drugstore spinner racks.  As such, comic book fandom was seen as a bit more casual thing and writers felt like they couldn't take it for granted that a reader picking up a comic book may be that familiar with Cap's backstory.  As such, the issue of Cap's lost partner, Bucky, had to be brought up again, and again, and again.  This makes Cap seem as though he's wallowing in the tragedy... particularly if one reads a big block of these stories in one sitting. 

I will say this, though -- when Lee and Kirby began writing Captain America stories in the Silver Age they set those stories during WW II -- allowing them to write all-new tales of Cap and Bucky as a team for readers who were probably not old enough to have read the original stories in the 1940's.  This had the benefit of allowing readers to get to know the character of Bucky and thereby possibly feel the tragedy of his death a bit more.

Interestingly, in reading through this Essential volume you see Lee and Kirby dropping the WW II era stories suddenly in favor of writing stories of Cap's adventures set in the 'modern era'.  In fact, they drop this right in the middle of a story arc and simply hand wave away the end of the arc.  Apparently the WW II era stories were not striking a chord with readers and Marvel was receiving requests that they write stories about Cap in the then current time.  To a modern reader this change is kind of jarring and not extremely well done.

And any discussion of this thick tome would not be complete without a discussion of the artwork.  Jack Kirby was not nicknamed "the King" for nothing.  His artistic style would become justifiably famous and would go on to influence any number of other artists.  With the color stripped out of the Essential line it allows us to see and appreciate Kirby's line work.  Unfortunately, this volume features Kirby's work before he had quite reached the apex of his style.  You can see an evolution throughout the four years of comics backed into this volume but by the end he's still not quite where he would be.  Also, the more prosaic, superhero-style stories do not give him much chance to cut loose with some of his more imaginative designs.

As you can see in the panel above, taken from towards the end of the volume, Kirby is starting to branch out and the dynamism of his figural work is growing as well, but he's not quite there yet.  Wait till we get to the Thor stories... Kirby's work is gonna blow your socks off...

So, after this long, rambling post what's the final verdict?

If you want to see the roots of Captain America this is a pretty good place to start.  Since Marvel has never really had a company-wide reboot as DC Comics has most of these stories are all still in continuity with only a few little changes over the years. 

The WW II era stories are interesting but I have to admit that the modern era stories have a bit more weight as they start moving Cap forward in character development.  The tales, however, tend to be kind of bog-standard superhero fare with nothing terribly groundbreaking... yet.  The 'soap-opera' elements are also a bit clunky and corny by modern standards.  One can also use the volume to trace the evolution of Jack Kirby's influential art style.

On the whole, if you can tolerate some old-fashioned comic book writing styles and some ludicrous pseudo-science there are some good things to be gained from Essential Captain America, vol. 1.  Although I would, perhaps, recommend that you read it in bite-sized chunks rather than in marathon reading sessions.  I think some of the problems of plotting and writing do not become as annoying that way.  And hey, if nothing else, it's over 300 pages of comics for $20.  That's a pretty good bargain for several weeks' worth or more of reading entertainment.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"All in Black and White for... Well, probably not a Dime"

Several years back publishers DC Comics and Marvel Comics began publishing massive tomes filled with old issues of their comics.  DC called their line Showcase Presents (the reason behind said title I'll get into later) and Marvel titled theirs Essential.  The feature of both titles was to make old issues available to the public in an inexpensive format.

Both the Essential and Showcase lines featured all the issues featuring a particular character in chronological order and each book usually ran (and still runs) to something over 300 pages... all for about $20.  How can they offer so much for so cheap (and believe me, that's cheap)?  Two simple things -- the comics are printed on cheaper paper than the heavier, glossy stuff that modern comics and trade paperbacks are printed on (the stuff that Essential and Showcase use is kind of a step or two up from newsprint.  And if you aren't careful and store your copies of these away from heat and direct sunlight they will start to yellow like old newsprint.  Let's just say I'm careful but I've seen others who were not so).  The other thing is that the comics are printed in black and white.  The original color comics are scanned and the color digitally stripped out and then the art digitally touched up a bit to make sure it's clear.

Now, for some, this is heresy of the first order.  Some because it changes the original format -- that comics were *meant* to be seen in color.  Some because they simply hate black and white art in all forms... color snobs who won't even see a black and white movie.

For me... it depends.  For some comics, stripping away the color doesn't really impact the story any and for the most part I'm buying these books to get the stories.  And for some comics stripping out the color actually allows you to better see the original artist's line work better and you come to a greater appreciation of their talent and skill.  For other comics, however, stripping away the color does ruin things because you might discover that the line work was not very good to begin with and the color hid the flaws.  Or it may be a case where color was an integral part of the characters and the stories and removing the color ruins that.  A good example of this latter is the character Green Lantern.  The character has always been defined by his glowing, green energy constructs and his weakness to things colored yellow.  So taking the color out of a Green Lantern story... kind of takes away what is, for me at least, part of the very character and story. 

So why am I going on about all of this?  Well, let's just say I've been on a run lately and I figured it might be a good time and place for me to share some of my observations about some Silver and Bronze Age comics, characters, and stories.

"All in color for a dime!" used to be a selling point of early comic books but here we're going to be looking at "all in black and white for about $20". 

We've Gone Off the Rails!

Yes, sorry, sorry, sorry, the Compound Geekery Blog has gone off the rails as of late due to me doing other things which I wasn't really inspired to write about.

I am endeavoring to fix that....

Stay Tuned.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"He'll Have to Sit and Watch Them All and We'll Monitor His Mind"

And now we come to the final installment in the MST3K season 4 overview. 

Invariably during every season there are episodes which can mostly pass without comment -- "good" but not "great".  In the midst of these episodes though there may be a terrific host segment or a short film which outshines the feature film it is paired with.

So this post is where I highlight those things.

First up:

'The Rainy Day Holo-Clowns':  This one actually starts in the third host segment of episode 405 -- Being From Another Planet.  The gang would continue it in the opening to the following episode Attack of the Giant Leeches.  The second half -- in which it turns out the 'holo-clowns' have been up on the hexfield viewscreen for three weeks -- is the funnier bit as Joel frantically tries to finally shut the system down and the holo-clowns start to have their own nervous breakdowns.  And yes, that's Mike Nelson as one of the clowns -- the other is Paul Chaplin, a writer on the show.  This was Chaplin's first on-screen appearance.

Next: 'The bots try to convince Joel he's crazy' from episode 409 The Indestructible Man.  The movie and the short are a unremarkable and unmemorable but this opening host segment is a hoot.  It wasn't too often that the bots tried playing tricks on Joel but when the gang brought one out it was usually a good one.  On top of that, this segment does beg the question -- was Kevin Murphy pupeteering Crow instead of his usual Tom Servo?  And was Trace Beaulieu handling Tom Servo instead of Crow?

This next one is a short instead of a host segment.  Apparently a tourism film to promote the Canadian National Exposition or something Johnny at the Fair chronicles the exploits of young Johnny (who else?) as he runs around the expo meeting famous people and getting free rides and free food while his parents search for him frantically... well, as frantic as you can get in a 1950's film designed to convince people to come to the expo.  Wait...  was 'come to the expo and lose your kid and then have a lousy time while you freak out looking for him and imagining the worst' really the message they wanted to send?  Anyway, as you can imagine, Joel and the bots have an excellent time making fun of little Johnny's adventures and the riffing for this short is a lot more fun than the movie it's paired with -- episode 419's The Rebel Set.

We're back to host segments for 'Grumpy Hugh Beaumont'.  Back in season 2 the gang tackled the snoozer film The Lost Continent and the host segments for that one were livened up by a visit from Leave it to Beaver's dad Hugh Beaumont (Mike Nelson)... as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse.  Well, in season 4 Hugh returns courtesy of episode 420 -- The Human Duplicators.  Hugh may no longer be a horseman of the apocalypse but he's decidedly older and grumpier... much to Joel and the bots' dismay and much to the delight of the viewer...  Sadly, I can't find an embeddable copy of this video so just check out the third host segment for the episode -- you'll be glad you did.

And here we have another short which was far funnier than the film it was paired with...  Circus on Ice is... well, I'm honestly still trying to figure out WHY this short film was created in the first place.  It doesn't seem to fill any tourism function and it's not really educational and it's past the days of the old newsreels when they would splat just about any odd thing onto film but no matter it's original purpose here it becomes comedy gold.  Joel and the bots indulge in quite a bit of dark humor and some risque riffing but it's hysterically funny -- far more funny than the weird and nearly incomprehensible Monster A-Go-Go it's paired with.

Finally, we come to kind of a tough one for me.  You see the short Hired! -- obviously a training film created by Chevrolet pre-WW II to train it's sales managers -- actually originally came in two parts and the riffing team did use both parts.  Part one was paired with episode 423 Bride of the Monster and part two was paired with the next movie in line -- Manos, The Hands of Fate.  The riffing on the first half of Hired! is pretty good really but the riffing on the second half is superior in my opinion.  Still, I almost included the first half of the short here as well if for no other reason than the second half makes slightly more sense in context when you've seen the first half.  Also, because one of the host segments for episode 423 also makes more sense when you've seen the first half of Hired!  In the end, I'll leave it up to you if you want to seek out Hired! part one or not.  It's pretty good stuff but the real gem here is actually the host segment...

Joel and the bots take the events and characters from the short and turn them into a really great parody song medley.  'Hired! The Musical' is one of the best parody musical bits the gang has done in a good while as far as I'm concerned.  Mike Nelson outdid himself on the songs and Joel Hodgson manages to pretty well control his often wayward voice to turn in an acceptable singing performance.  Kevin Murphy's tenor is, of course, the scene stealer.  The gang manages to do a perfect parody/satire of a musical in less than four minutes -- that takes serious talent!

So, that's season 4 wrapped.  Onward from here!

Friday, June 8, 2012

"We'll Send Him Cheesy Movies; The Worst We Can Find"

And now it's time for my favorite MST3K episodes of the fourth season...

In broadcast order....

Teenagers from Outer Space: This is one goofy film and it is smack in the MST3K wheelhouse.  A cheesy, sci-fi movie made on half-a-shoestring budget with actors who fall into one of three categories: Can't act, don't act, or overact.  I have to admit that within the first few minutes of sitting down to watch this episode I thought I was going to be in for one of those mediocre slogs but the movie quickly picked up in absurdity and as it did Joel, Trace, and Kevin's riffing also picked up exponentially.  The movie -- the story of a group of aliens who come to Earth to find grazing land for their food source (basically a poor lobster probably bought at the local grocery store) only to have one of their number rebel to try to warn the human population that their planet is about to be turned into pasture land -- is unintentionally hilarious in its' own right but when you add the riffing it immediately reaches the level of comedy gold.  The riffing team are fast with the jokes and far more of them hit the mark than fall flat.  On top of all of that, the host segments are pretty good here -- the third one is a particular favorite of mine as the Satellite of Love is visited by an alien hot rod...

The Magic Sword: To be honest, this movie is almost mediocre.  It falls juuuussst under the line.  With a little more effort it would have probably missed being a riffing target.  As it is though Joel and the bots do a bang-up job tearing apart this story which rips off at least half-a-dozen fairy tales, folk tales, and myths.  The host segments for this one are also pretty good but the second one, where Tom Servo gives a mini-lecture on what life in the Middle Ages was really like warms my historian heart.  It's pretty spot-on, historically speaking, if a bit superficial.  What's even funnier, though, is Joel and Crow's reaction to having their light fantasy ruined by a dose of reality.  Check this one out.

Manhunt in Space (with a General Hospital short): *Sigh* in my previous post I covered why I didn't like the addition of chopped up General Hospital episodes as shorts.  Despite it's presence here I really dug Manhunt in Space.  Little bit of background -- the "movie" is actually several episodes of early sci-fi TV series Rocky Jones: Space Ranger mashed together to form a movie.  Unlike the clunky Master Ninja movies of last season though Rocky Jones, like Doctor Who was done serial style -- or story arc style -- with several episodes of the show being pieces of the larger story and often ending on a cliffhanger.  Because of this the Rocky Jones episodes actually work pretty well in movie format.  Also, this is another one that probably wasn't too fair to riff in all honesty.  The show came from the 1950's when almost all TV writing was pretty cheesy and clunky and on top of that the show was made for kids.  The worst crime this movie really commits is simply not aging well.  Despite my defense of the movie I still love the episode.  There are some really funny jokes here that had me laughing out loud and I really get a sense from the riffing team that there was also a certain amount of fondness involved even as they do tear into the film.  The host segments really aren't anything to write home about here though -- the feature film is the real... uh.... feature.

Fire Maidens of Outer Space: Oh man, this one... this one is solid gold.  Not gold leaf, not gold plated , solid.  Gold.  The riffing is top notch and in fact is the *only* thing that makes this movie watchable (more on that later) and the host segments are a rarity on a number of levels.  Up until close to the end of the show's run the gang rarely did linked host segments which, all together, told a whole story.  This is one of those rare occasions.  Not only that but the host segments are all genuinely funny and they all work together to present a perfect satire of, of all things, Aliens.  Even more rare, the host segment action even spills over into the theatre riffing!  All of this is terrific because the movie is epic fail on every level.  There are wide swaths of stuff which is not explained and makes no sense, the plot doesn't go anywhere, and worst of all NOTHING HAPPENS!  This movie is lethally dull.  And I mean that.  It should come with biohazard stickers and a Surgeon General's warning.  Unriffed this movie could put a person down so hard it would make Sleeping Beauty's 100 year rest look like a nap.  It is a testament to the writing and riffing talents of the whole team that they can pull this movie up and shove it over the top.  I've seen the host segments alone available on YouTube strung together so you can see the whole 'story' but I'm not linking to it nor embedding it here because everyone should go watch the whole thing and not just the host segments.

Attack of the (the) Eye Creatures: This one is almost too, too, easy.  There are movies made on the cheap and then there's THIS thing.  Ye gods...  Almost the entire film is shot day-for-night -- because it's cheaper.  The sets are whatever they could find locally -- with a presumed military base looking like a grade school -- because it was cheaper.  The alien costumes are just cheap with industrial zippers clearly visible in the back and wobbly heads and then they're so cheap they don't actually have enough alien costumes to go around and in one scene one of the "aliens" consists of a black turtleneck, black pants, and sneakers.  This is yet another one that simply makes fun of itself.  Why should we, however, expend the effort since Joel and the bots do such a good job of it?  Again, the riffing is great -- but the guys would have had to have been dead to not do a good job when the movie practically gives them the jokes.  They still manage to get creative and go places with the riffing that I never would have expected and that makes this one fun.  The host segments are... not real great here.  In fact, there's only one a truly like -- Tom Servo wants to know what it would be like to "make out".  You can zone out during most of the host segments but don't miss the riffing on this movie.

Manos, The Hands of Fate: Yeah, you all just KNEW this one had to be in here, didn't you?  This one often is called the best episode of the Joel era and some claim it the best episode of the show period.  Others consider it wholly distasteful.  It is... well... one for the books.  As much as I called Fire Maidens of Outer Space epic fail filmmaking this one is even more so.  The difference is that Fire Maidens was made by people who should have known better while Manos was made on a bet (not kidding) by people who had no real clue.  In some ways it maybe isn't fair to riff it -- Joel and the gang have long said and still say today that they won't riff on amateur films or student films basically because they're done by people who are still learning or who don't know any better and Manos is pretty much an amateur film.  It did have some theatrical release though and did end up in a video syndication package so... yeah... it barely makes it fair game.  It's just so completely... bizarre a film -- badly shot, badly edited, badly lit (check out all the moths which swarm around the obvious spotlights), bad dialogue badly delivered, weird characters and a plot that makes little sense -- that it actually might make difficult riffing fodder rather than easy fodder.  There are some moments in the film which seem to leave Joel and the bots nearly speechless or else their only reaction is simply to laugh.  Despite the movie, maybe because of it, the gang do a great job at the riffing and produce genuinely entertaining host segments and along the way turn Torgo into a star.  If you've got the fortitude definitely check this one out -- this time I think the Master would approve...