Sunday, February 28, 2010

Who Names These Things?! pt. 2

The Flash

Episode 8: "Shroud of Death"

Someone is killing public officials and leaving broken pieces of a medallion at the scene of each killing. Barry is determined to find out what connects these seemingly disparate individuals but when he finds the truth the stakes go even higher because next in line would appear to be Barry's own boss -- Lt. Warren Garfield! An even greater stumbling block is the fact that the man who would be the most logical suspect in the killings was executed 10 years ago! Unless Barry figures out who this ghost killer is Garfield and his fiancee may not survive.

My Take:
"Shroud of Death." "Shround of Death"?!?! Seriously, who named this? Do that not know what 'shroud' means?! At least one definition of a shroud is the covering that a body was wrapped in for burial. So, a shroud is SYNONYMOUS with death. *Sigh* Yet another nonsensical title for the series.

Also, yet another common cirminal for the series as well. *Sigh*.

All that aside, this is actually a pretty good story. It is a really nice character study, and while it gets a little heavy handed at times it doesn't beat the viewers over the head with the message of how revenge eats away at a person. More importantly, the villain in this story comes across as someone who was deeply wounded, and not so much evil per se as so twisted by her upbringing and blinded by her grief that she slipped into a homicidal madness. In the end you do not condemn her so much as pity her.

The whole episode is also really nicely acted -- in particular is the solid performance by the actor playing Lt. Garfield. His relationship with his finacee is sweet and yet never saccharine. It really rings true for a relationship between two people who are on the back half of their lives and are comfortable with one another and not looking for grand, romanitc gestures and who expect a certain amount of emotional drama but are well prepared for it. The actor also handles the more dramatic moments with panache -- taking it up to the top but without going over it -- it's a fine line to tread and a lot of actors can't do it. Kudos are deserved.

The story would really hold up a lot better, though, if there were not some huge plot holes as well as some gaping problems... For example, Barry's co-worker in the crime lab, Julio Mendez is, officially, an idiot -- both for taking this long to figure out Barry's secret identity and then for being turned away from the truth by a paper thin ruse. Likewise, Garfield is an idiot for not recognizing at least Barry Allen's voice when the Flash speaks to him (not that the mask itself does a very good job as a disguise but, hey, we're going to accept a little bit of comic book suspension of disbelief). Also, Barry Allen is an idiot for not trying to at least disguise his voice a little bit. A lot of people poked fun at Chrisitan Bale's Batman voice but, hey, at least the man was trying. And for a great example, check out Kevin Conroy in Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: Gotham Knight as he does an absolutely phenominal job of changing his voice between Bruce Wayne and Batman.

The story also features some silly sidetracking into trying to build up more romantic tension between Barry and Tina. Their fight and the reasons behind it are pretty childish for two people who are at least in their 30's here.

Okay, okay, so... in the final verdict, nitpicking aside, plot holes aside, this is one of the better episodes of the series. The story is really solid, the consequences of hate are explored in a pretty good way, a couple or three good performances are turned in by the cast as a whole, and the special effects have withstood the test of time and they do not overwhelm the story. It's definitely worth the time spent.

Flash Facts:
The murals that appear in this episode have a definite Thomas Hart Benton look to them and I wonder if the artist in question wasn't inspired by Benton's work.

Barry's using super speed to flick through computer files is impossible. No computer -- particularly one from the early 1990's, would have been able to keep up with the speed with which he was hitting the keys. Most likely all he would have ended up with would have been the 1990 equivalent of the Windows Blue Screen of Death.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Groovy Baby, yeah!

The Flash

Episode 7: "Child's Play"

A drug guru from the 1960's faked his death and went underground only to start emerging in Central City with a new, highly addictive and dangerous drug of his own concotion! A reporter about to break the story is killed and Barry Allen is on the trail to find the killer. Unfortunately he also is trying to help the force track down the source of the new drug AND he gets saddled with taking care of two orphan children! All three problems, though, are tied in together and one of the kids under Barry's care has the one clue that will break the whole thing wide open. Will even the Flash be fast enough to figure it out before a little boy pays a heavy price?

My Take:
Airing about seven or eight years before Mike Myers' first Austin Powers movie, this episode was actually a little ahead of it's time in capturing a wave of '60's nostalgia.

The story is cheesy, yes. There's a lot of "Don't do drugs, drugs are bad. M'kay?" message here as well. The villain comes off like a cross between a psychotic Timothy Leary and Liberace (yeah, try to get THAT image out of your head now), he's got a completely unworkable evil plot that involves addicting the entire city to his drug (of course, what would you expect from a character whose supposedly been sampling his own stuff for the past 2o years), and he chews the scenery at every opportunity... And it's all crazy, stupid awesome!

Yeah, I know. On every level I should really hate this episode. The villain is, again, lacking in super powers, there is a tribute to the rock band The Who at the end that is rather more cringe-worthy than not, and there are multiple moral lessons stuffed into the story so hard it's amazing one hour-long show can hold them all.

What saves everything, though, is that the characters of the kids are rarely overly saccharine, the villain is so flamboyantly, over-the-top that it actually works, there are a couple of really well played, sincere scenes, and there are also several good lines of dialogue and good scequences. A bit cheesy perhaps, but good nonetheless. Take, for example, when the drug addled villain threatens his supplier -- pushing the man up against his car and declaring "The '60's didn't have as much peace and love as you might think."

The performances all around are fairly solid. There is one scene in which the actress playing the wife of the murdered reporter pretty much fails in portraying genuine grief... instead giving such a hammy performance it is obvious she's trying too hard. Once she gets over that hump, though, she does a much better job throughout.

The special effects are, overall, well done. There is one really, really obvious use of green screen but the rest have aged quite well and the sequence where the Flash actually phases through a wall is still cool. The way they depict the vision of those on the drugs is also nicely trippy.

From a comic book standpoint there is actually a lot to like here. Early on the episode we see the Flash catch bullets and then throw them back at the gunman's car -- blowing out the tires. This was a little trick that the comic book version did on more than one occasion. We also have the Flash vibrating so fast he is able to phase through a wall; used here for the first and (I think) only time. This is a shame because in the comic books, phasing through objects was one of the tricks the Flash used all the time.

The long and the short of it is that, despite having the deck stacked against it, this manages to actually be a fun and entertaining epsiode. Tune in, turn on, and drop out... but make sure you check your brain at the door first.

Flash Facts:
The series pays tribute to it's influences and roots -- in one sequence, as Barry walks his dog for the night they pass my a movie theatre. The marque out front declares "Double Feature: Batman and Superman". Barry also walks past a movie poster for Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie -- indicating that the double feature will be Burton's 1989 Batman and Richard Donner's 1978 Superman film.

Friday, February 26, 2010

It's a Sin...

The Flash

Episode 6: "Sins of the Father"

A man Barry's father put behind bars nearly 20 years ago escapes to seek his revenge and Barry must pull double duty in his double identity to keep his father safe and catch the criminal.

My Take:
Ooo, look quick before it vanishes.... character development!

Yeah, okay, so this episode probably doesn't need that much snark... but really the character interaction is all that this story has going for it and that's not saying much.

Again, viewers are left with yet another cheap hood for a villain... and in this case the cheap hood in question really doesn't even seem that smart. The real mystery here is how such a walking impulse control problem of a villain manages to outwit the police, Barry's father and Barry/the Flash. Extreme stupidity and plot contrivences are the only explanation... sadly.

Meanwhile, you know that little sub-plot of the conflict between Barry and his dad that the writers have been unsubtly whacking viewers over the head with as if it were a Louisville Slugger? Yeah, that finally comes to a head here and gets resolved. Both of the actors involved handle the dialogue pretty well but, really, the dialogue and sequences are so formulaic that even someone who has never seen this episode before could probably recite the lines a beat before the actors do. There is nothing here that viewers haven't seen a thousand times before in other movies and TV shows. It must be said, though, that at least the writers don't screw it up and nothing here goes over the top... like it could have.

That's actually probably the biggest problem here -- there really never feels like there's any tension. You never feel at any point that the writers actually could be contemplating killing off Barry's dad and the one area they could have created some tension -- by having Barry struggle to keep his father from finding out about his double life -- is almost completely ignored except for one quick and really rather tensionless scene. There is nothing in the story that really grabs the viewer and keeps them interested.

Overall, the acting is solid... although our villain of the piece does more than his share of scenery chewing and is a bit annoying, and Shipp goes over the top in the final confrontation in a way that ends up being laughable rather than dramatic.

From a comic book standpoint there are problems in that, in this story, Barry's father, Henry, refers to himself as an "old Irish cop"... and, first of all, I don't recall anything in the comic books that specifically stated Barry's family was Irish and, second of all, comic book Barry's father was originally a retired, small down doctor.

The special effects here are well done all around and actually there are not quite as many of them as usual as the Flash doesn't make as many appearances as usual. From a physical and special effects standpoint, the fight scene in the bar is actually very impressive and well handled. The dialogue is a little corny there though.

This story is interesting because it is the first time that was actually sort of see Barry actually 'transform' into the Flash. Granted, it is just a flash of light during a speed blur effect but it's still nice to see the director decide to put it in. Of course, this again conflicts with the comic book version. The comic book Flash had a sleek costume which was compressed and stored inside the top of a ring (I know, I know, but it's Silver Age comic book science. Accept it and go with it) and Barry would change clothes at super speed to avoid being seen. With the TV series, because of the bulky costume (and presumably the lack of wanting to stretch suspension of disbelief) the ring gag was out. The thing is, aside from the pilot episode, viewers never see exactly where Barry is storing the costume -- he simply runs off and then reappears in costume.

In the end, not a terrible episode but rather more a dull one. The one redeeming factor being that viewers now probably won't have to put up with the whole "My father isn't a good father!" routine from Barry. Yay.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is generally credited with coining the term "MacGuffin" to describe an element used to drive the plot of the story along. Since then the term has been latched onto by many in literature, film, theatre, etc.

Most of the time writers make sure the MacGuffin is at least usually defined in some manner during the story and is usually disguised as well so that, while it is used to manipulate the audience through the actions of the characters or events on the screen, most audiences don't pay that much attention to the manipulation itself.

There are exceptions, though. I was in a bit of a snit over James Cameron's use of "Unobtanium" in the movie Avatar. It's one thing to use a MacGuffin, it's quite another to shout at the audience THIS IS A MACGUFFIN!!!

But that aside, the fact of the matter is that MacGuffins are everywhere. When I was much younger Garfield creator Jim Davis had another comic strip called U.S. Acres. Not as popular as his Garfield work, the U.S. Acrescharacters did, eventually, feature in a number of animated shorts. The shorts often spoofed things like James Bond and superheroes and a running gag throughout those stories was to spoof the idea of a MacGuffin by creating a nonsensical object they referred to as "A Thermonuclear Exploding Grelbin Device". As you can tell by the fact that I still remember this today this idea struck me as funny and I have come to prefer "grelbin" to MacGuffin. Therefore, throughout my posts you are likely to see me refer to any MacGuffin-like object or device as a grelbin instead. Because, let's face it, a thermonuclear exploding grellbin device sounds much cooler, doesn't it?

Who Names These Things?!

The Flash
Episode 5: "Double Vision"

Something is happening in Central City's Hispanic neighborhood. As both Barry Allen and his alter ego the Flash try to unravel the mystery he discovers that a law enforcement officer is under government protection until he spills the beans on the leader of a drug cartel but the man's daughter is in hiding in the neighborhood. The cartel boss has hired someone to try to find the girl in order to use her as leverage and the man he has hired has, in turn, used technological wizardry to gain control of the Flash and turn him into a puppet! Barry must find this puppet master and figure out a way of cutting the strings or else a number of people will pay a very heavy price and an evil man will walk away scott free!

My Take:
Who chose the name for the episode? Because "Double Vision" has, as far as I can see, nothing to do with the plot. A better title would have perhaps have been "Puppet Master" or "Under the Influence" or something along those lines.

You know, I won't claim to be an expert on the Santeria religion nor on the Day of the Dead festivals but somehow I doubt both are portrayed in anything like a reasonable light here. Heck, the Day of the Dead parade alone here looks like a cross between Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnivale in Rio.

I will forgive the crappy sci-fi science here which basically makes no sense because, well, that sort of thing is actually a comic book staple. The more crazy and impossible it is in many ways the better it is. The grelbin* device created here is actually pretty good by comic book standards -- just vague enough and sounding just plausible enough to not break suspension of disbelief. Good show from the writers on that one.

As for the rest.... Well, we finally get a villain who is pretty close to being a supervillain. He has gadgets which help him pose more of a threat to our hero and he has a bit of a weird look which at least implies he has enhanced himself above human standard model. He also chews the scenery and overacts with all the verve of Snidely Whiplash.... eh.... this is not such a good thing. While fans expect a certain amount of over-the-top from supervillains there is a fine line which, once crossed, takes the villain into comedy territory. This guy crosses it. He also lacks a cool supervillain name. Half of selling a supervillain to the audience is giving him/her a cool and/or intruiging name and here the writers just copped out and didn't bother with one at all.

The story also feels a bit choppy, just like the one earlier in the season. It seems almost as though there are some scenes which were cut and this leads viewers to have these "What the heck just happened?" moments which jerk them right out of the story.

The villain is not the only one who overacts here -- several of the guest cast, and even Shipp, are guilty of scenery chweing like a flock of termites and/or going so far over the top they actually achieve escape velocity and are probably still orbiting somewhere around Jupiter.

From a technical standpoint, like with the previous episode, some of the special effects still look good today, some look a little dated. The props, though... oh boy. The villain's 'control unit' looks like the Nintendo Power Glove gone over to the Dark Side of the Force as interpreted by Darth Vader's father's brother's nephew's counsin's former roommate (bonus geek reference). The 'Power Glove's' sudden ability to shoot lightning also comes across as a 'What the h-e-double toothpicks?!' moment as you sit there trying to figure out where THIS came from.

Overall, a flawed episode but one that at least gives a glimmer of hope for the future in that we see some signs that the writers may actually be starting to understand that a superhero needs some supervillains to fight.

Flash Facts:
At one point in the story Barry has a nightmare in which he sees himself as the Flash with strings attached to his body, a la a marionette, being manipulated. This might, possibly, be a tribute to a famous Silver Age Flash comic book cover and story (The Flash #133) in which the 35th century supervillain Abra Kadabra (see what I mean about a good villain having a good name and hook?) turns the Flash into a life-sized wooden puppet (yes, the story is as bizarre as it sounds. That's the Silver Age for you -- lunacy where ever you look).

*For more on "grelbin" see my next post

Finishing the Race at the Start

So, last night I picked up the final issue of the Flash: Rebirth miniseries and my final verdict was.... It was okay.

Looking at these posts so far you might think that I was a huge Flash fangirl. Well, surprise! I'm not. Not really. Not a big fan of the characters necessarily but it's not like I hate them either. To be honest, probably my favorite out of all of the Flashes is the Jay Garrick version... mostly because most writers depict the character as a kind of 'Universal Uncle" or "Grandfather" and, they succeed quite well because the character does tend to remind me of a couple of beloved uncles.

With this mini-series the story never really seemed to grab that much traction and give readers many of those "Holy $%&*!" moments that we love.

On the flip side, though, this final issue did give us a couple of quiet moments with the character of Barry Allen which were genuinely sweet and gave us a real feel for what is going to drive the character in the upcoming ongoing series.

So, for what it's worth -- not a bad read overall but nothing that ever reached a point of slamming you back in your chair and make you go "WOW!!!" as you read it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thieves Among Honor

And now we return you to your regularly scheduled Flash frivolity.

Episode 4: "Honor Among Thieves"

Plot: Six of the best thieves in the world arrive in Central City at the same time a priceless Russian artifact comes to the city as part of a traveling exhibit. Coincidence? The CCPD don't think so and they step up security on the museum. This brings Barry back into contact with his old college professor/mentor/father figure and reopens bad memories of the rift that broke their relationship. Everything may not be as it seems, however, and these six villains may have something even more spectacular in store for Central City... not even the Flash can be everywhere at once...

My Take:
And the series continued to show it had settled a bit more with the writers getting more of a handle on the pacing and concept of the series.

The villains, though, sadly continued to remain not only flat but one-note. Each villain is boiled down to one specialty and stereotyped characteristics and as such they become plot instead of characters. These are also still garden variety crooks raather than super powered foes. Their one saving grace is that the writers at least give them a little flamboyancy -- which helps to overcome the lack of real menace. Also, the sheer numbers of them -- having six intelligent (or reasonably so) highly skilled criminals make the audience at least briefly consider the idea that they might give the Flash a run for his money.

The writers also try to inject a little emotional drama here as we return to the themes set out in the pilot -- of Barry feeling forever dismissed by his father and never quite fitting in -- being neither fish nor fowl, neither street cop nor pure scientist. This all does get laid on with a trowel though as seen at one point where Barry states that his dad was "not much of a father." Ouch. Despite some of the heavy handedness, though, there is something sweet and genuine in the scenes between Barry and his former mentor and both of the actors involve hit the notes just right and make the dialogue for the scene a lot more easy than it might have been.

The special effects are kept to a bit of a minimum but that actually works well here as it creates a nice balance where the flashy (yes, I went there) Flash effects do not overwhelm the story. In addition to the usual generated effects there are a couple of nice pyrotechnic scenes which look good and make a nice impact.

From a comic book standpoint there again isn't much to fuss about here. We get confirmation that Barry wants to keep the Flash an urban legend and this is in contrast to the comic book Flash who was often appearing in parades or charity events or being announced on the news as lending a hand to the police. Interstingly, there are also some indications that for this series there were no other powered heroes anywhere else. If the show had gone on beyond the single season it would have been interesting to see if they would have kept to this. Even the other superhero show of the 1990's Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman occasionally dropped hints that Batman was running around Gotham. And the modern equivalent Smallville has had most of the Justice League hanging around for several years.

Flash Facts:
Another name check for Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick as the episode mentions "Garrick St." again. Also, another possible reference is the fact that, in one scene in the Central City Museum, Barry is seen studying a statue of Hermes. The Golden Age Flash's costume, most notably his helmet, was inspired by depictions of Hermes, fleet footed messenger of the gods.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Being Serious for a Moment

You may have noticed that I missed a day on my Flash reviews. the reason for this was that I had to attend a funeral.

This was for someone whom I had been raised calling my "aunt" even though she was not a blood relative. It didn't matter. In my family we hold to the idea that what makes "family" isn't really bloodlines. "Family" are those people who always love you and support you. "Family" are those people you call at 2:00 when the crap has hit the fan and they don't ask any questions they just come running.

By that definition this woman and her husband were "family". They helped my parents raise my sister and I. They were like having a grandmother and grandfather, aunt and uncle, and at times even another set of parents all rolled into one.

Her husband passed away 14 years ago -- and is still sorely missed. And now she has gone to join him. And the world is lessened by her passing.

She was born and raised in a small, rural town and her husband kept the family farm up until the day he died. My mother, father, sister and I would go up often throughout the Spring, Summer and Fall -- sometimes just to spend a day on the weekend, other times to spend an entire weekend up there. We loved it. It was quiet and peaceful and my uncle would often take my sister and I on nature walks through the farm -- teaching us about the animals and the plants we saw.

Every Summer there were a couple of festivals and during one they actually used to block off the entire main street and have a big dance well into the night. The town was that small that not only could they do this but no one complained about the noise because everyone was there!

My aunt's funeral was held from the little, country church at the edge of town and being there again was a surreal experience. After my uncle died my aunt sold the farm and, what with growing up, getting a job, and moving away a bit, I didn't get up to this small town very often. It had been about a year since the last time I had been through there. But traveling through the town to the church, sitting in the church where I had sat through many a Sunday service on visits, and then following the cortege to the cemetary I was struck by how little the whole area had changed over the years. It was possibly the closest thing to being able to step into a time machine and for the first time in a long time I felt like I could almost touch the child I had once been running around there.

But there was something else as well. As we were driving out the cemetary I realized that my aunt and her husband had been my anchors to this place and, suddenly, the last of those anchors was gone. It was a strange feeling -- as if I were a boat cut loose from the moorings. I could still see the shore but I was no longer attached to it; and I wondered how I would get back to it as well. Sure, I could come back and visit from time to time but it just wouldn't be quite the same. It was an emotional and mental shift rather than a physical one.

As I drove home, later, though, this feeling hung with me. You see, as most of us go through this world we establish relationships with people -- friendships, loves, family ties, etc.. These relationships, in turn, tie us to other people, places and sometimes things and we don't tend to really think about this or bother to see the ties. And then something like this happens. Someone we considered an anchor disappears and all of a sudden we can see the whole web of connections... and the web is broken. These lines that, when we thought of them at all, seemed like unbreakable steel cables, are revealed as as tenuous and gossamer as spider webs. And we realize that we must make an effort now to save the web. What once came so easily, what once was so strong because of the anchor is now adrift and if we want to preserve this we have to reach out, and grab the floating line, pull it back and tie the broken ends together. The line can still be strong but where once there was an anchor there remains a knot of memory.

My aunt was one of those people who wove such a wide, expansive web. If you spent 10 minutes around her she would likely soon weave you into her system. There are very few people in this world who are able to do that. Very few people know how to spin such a large web but the key was that she was such a strong anchor at the center.

And now the world has lost one more person who had the power to be a part of so many lives, to influence so many people in such a positive and giving way. She cannot be replaced. The web is broken and it can be repaired, somewhat, but it will never again be as large, as beautiful, as intricate and as strong as it once was.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Breaking the Bank

The Flash

Episode 3: "Watching the Detectives"

Plot: A corrupt DA is involved with a mobster running an illegal casino but when both hatch schemes to get out of their deal the DA decides he wants to stack the deck. He hires private investigator Megan Lockhart to discover the real indentity of the Flash and when she does the DA uses the information to threaten Barry with exposure... unless Barry does exactly what he is ordered to.

My Take: Much better! The story here hangs together pretty well and there is a nice mix of humor and action. There is still a bit of a simplistic, moralizing tone as P.I. Megan Lockhart has to be 'shown how her work can impact others' lives' and the ending is entirely too convenient and smacks of deus ex machina but overall the tale is solid. There is also some nice acting by Shipp as Barry. For perhaps the first time he seems more at ease in the role and he doesn't try to force the humor which therefore actually makes it funny for a change. The scene where Barry breaks the bank at the illegal casino is genuinely entertaining with some good lines. Joyce Hyser is also quite good in her guest starring turn at Lockhart -- injecting the character with a lot of spunk and a little bit of grit. Hyser would reprise the role two more times before the series' end.

The series is still suffering from a bit of Burton Batman worship, though. There are elements of 'creative anachronism' as viewers see modern style reporters carrying 1930's style microphones -- just as they did in the Batman movie.

There is still a bit of a problem with the threat levels, though. In dealing with superhero stories there is an expectation that the threats the heroes face will be equal to their powers. Here we have a mobster, a crooked DA, and an arson-for-hire scheme that your average powerless pulp-style detective hero could have wrapped up in no time flat. The addition of the threat to Barry's secret ID adds a little jolt to the proceedings but really, there's nothing here that really pushes our hero. Just as an aside... The arsonist is called "the Spaniard". A guy who is so "white and nerdy" (as Al Yankovic sang) he practically defines the words is called "the Spaniard". Seriously?!

It is interesting, though, that the writers chose to go for the whole 'exposure of secret identity' theme this early in the series.

Most of the special effects are also quite good here. The opening fire looks good although the fire staged toward the end of the story is weak sauce and pretty obviously the work of a pyrotechnics department. As was mentioned before, the sequence of Barry using his powers to cheat in the casino comes off beautifully but the final fight between the Flash and the mob henchmen has not aged well at all.

Special note should be made of Shirley Walker's score here. Walker would score this series and then go on to score Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Batman Beyond. She would win an Emmy for her work with B:TAS. Here, in keeping with the sub-theme of the semi-shady private eye, she devised a score that had a real 1930's sound with a kind of jazzy/bluesy edge to it. It's really nice work and worth paying attention to.

From a comic book standpoint there is not too much to kick about. At this stage in the series they were still portraying the Flash as a kind of urban myth and having some of the population believing he existed and others not. This was yet another throwback to Burton's Batman as, in the comic books, the Flash was always public about his existence -- often appearing on TV and being mentioned in the news. Interestingly though, in the Silver Age Batman operated out in the open as a hero as well. His status between public hero and urban myth has veered from one to the other in the comic books in the modern era to the point where I wonder if anyone knows for certain which he is supposed to be.

Flash Facts:
The title for the episode comes from the song by the same name by Elvis Costello.

At one point in the story Tina McGee indicates she is expecting a phone call from "Dr. Carter Hall". Carter Hall was the civilian name of the superhero Hawkman. In the comic books Carter's day job was as a museum curator so one would wonder what a museum curator would be doing calling a STAR Labs scientist.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

It's "After School Special" Time!

The Flash

Episode 2: "Out of Control"

Plot: Someone is killing homeless people in Central City but before the men die they undergo strange and horrific transformations. Barry investigates as a favor to a friend and wonders if it is a coincidence that an old flame of Tina McGee's arrived in town just about the time the deaths began...

My Take: First episode of the regular season and already viewers can see a few cast changes. The actress playing Iris West is quickly and effortlessly written out and Barry's new supervisor -- Lt. Garfield -- is written in equally effortlessly.

The overall story is quite the mess here. The pacing is terribly off -- the story moves to slowly in some places and too quickly in others making the whole thing feel jerky. There is a lot of heavy-handed moralizing of the type one used to see in those "After School Specials" and the villain is less than a cardboard cut-out. There is little explanation of his motivation and little reason for most of the things he does. When they do decide to give him a quasi-motivation he pulls an Inspector Javert out of nowhere (in the musical version of Les Miserables Inspector Javert reveals to Jean Valjean towards the end of the musical that he was born inside a prison -- a child of one of the prisoners there -- and this is one of the reasons why he dislikes convicts) and here there isn't the benefit of some pretty good musical numbers and a background of the Paris Uprising of 1832.

Many of the scenes are just plain bad. Badly written, the tone of the actors off, and leaving huge plotholes or else requiring the that viewers accept that the characters are simply stupid. There are also several moments -- mostly the transformation scenes -- which are 100% Velveeta cheese.

Some of the transformation scenes, however, look pretty good from a technical standpoint. The "monster" makeup for the villain of the piece though looks like something from a 'C-Grade' horror movie. A few of the scenes of the Flash using his powers are also a bit lacking -- showing their age and some obvious green screen work.

From a comic book fan standpoint... Removing Iris from the series is about the equivalent of removing Lois Lane from a series about a grown up Superman (and no, Smallville doesn't count). Among DC's superheroes Barry was one of the earliest to actually marry his love interest and stay married to her (except for a brief period when she was believed dead and then a long stretch when he actually was dead. Comic book death... might as well put a revolving door on the coffin) so the complete removal of her character so that the writers could use Dr. Tina McGee for romantic tension in the series is a bit irritating.

Another disappointing surprise is the revelation that Howard Chaykin was one of two script supervisors on the series. Chaykin is, and has been for some time, a well known comic book writer and artist. He is probably best known for his satirical, adult tribute to sex, drugs, jazz, and pulp stories in the comic book series American Flagg! finding him attached to this mess seems a bit incomprehensible... but I'm willing to chalk it up to either editorial interference, the story getting chopped up in post-production, studio influence or any combination thereof.

In the end, this is one story which could easily be skipped. Or else watched MST3K style with jokes and riffs.

Flash Facts:
At one point two patrol officers call in from the corner of Gardner and Fox streets. Gardner Fox was a longtime writer for DC and several other comic book companies but most of his comic book output was through DC. Not only did he write the first stories featuring the Golden Age Flash (1939), he also wrote the first several years of stories featuring the Silver Age Flash (1956). He was credited with creating DC's first "multiverse" and by the time he left DC there was probably very few characters he had not written in either solo stories or as a part of team books. There were and remain very few writers out there as prolific as Fox nor writers who have had such a profound effect on the face of comic books. He passed away in 1986 but his legacy lives on.

Friday, February 19, 2010


This is Barry Allen

And this is Barry Allen too

This is also Barry Allen

But for the TV series, this was Barry Allen. I know this is a bit of a nitpick but this is Hollywood! They seriously couldn't have found a blonde haired, blue eyed actor for the role?
Image one comes from The Flash: Rebirth, #2, Ethan VanSciver, art, Alex Sinclair, colors.
Image two comes from The Brave and the Bold (vol.2), #28, Jesus Saiz art, Trish Mulvihill, colors.
Image three come from DC: The New Frontier #5, Darwyn Cooke, art, Dave Stewart, color.


After a slight delay, it's time to begin my series of reviews....

Episode 1: "Pilot"

Central City is terrorized by a motorcycle gang and even the police department seems helpless against the wave of crime. A pair of brothers step into the fight -- Jay Allen, head of Central City's elite motorcylce police unit and Barry Allen, chief scientist of the Central City police department's forensics unit. A freak accident involving a bolt of lightning and a deluge of chemicals bestows on Barry the ability to move at super speed. Will even these newfound powers be enough, though, for Barry to save the city? Or will tragedy dog the Allen family's path?

My Take: A two-hour pilot gave the writers plenty of time to develop the characters and story. Too bad the majority of those characters were two-dimensional and the story was nothing really inventive. Most of the acting here is solid if a bit on the melodramatic side. It does, occasionally, veer off into true "ham" and "cheese" acting in a couple of places. The script itself isn't that subtle either; which adds to the problems. The whole idea of a criminal motorcycle gang just seems a bit silly and they never come across as that viable of a threat.

The villain of the piece is such a stock character that it's hard to actually take him seriously. There is no depth here and only the thinnest of motivations which makes the character worse than bad... it makes him boring.

John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen does bring some charm to the role and he was certainly pretty 'easy on the eyes' but there are times in the script when he tries to sell some of lighter moments a bit too much and he never quite brings across the grief or righteous indignation the script calls for. The supporting cast is also pretty strong and it was a nice idea from the producers to provide the series with such a deep supporting cast for the series -- it's an idea that fell away for a time in TV and has only really been making a comeback in recent years.

Surprisingly, the special effects still do look pretty good after all these years. There are a few obvious instances of green screen work but, for the most part, the money spent to produce the effects was money well spent.

As a comic book fan though.... This story has some real problems.

From the start viewers can see the influence the Tim Burton Batman movies had on the series. In the comic books Central City was a light, fairly bright, Midwestern city. Probably the best real-world analogue city would be Chicago or St. Louis. It was never the kind of dark, broken place that Gotham City was in Burton's vision and yet that is what viewers get -- complete with the same art deco touches of Burton's Gotham.

Another big problem is the fact that the writers felt compelled to give Barry a "tragic origin" and a family conflict which was never present in the comic books. Unlike a lot of heroes, comic book Barry became a costumed crimefighter because he felt it was the right thing to do and because he had grown up reading stories about comic book superheroes (that's right, Barry was a comic book geek. Gotta love it). Here, the TV writers introduced a brother (comic book Barry was an only child) for the express purpose of killing him off so that Barry would become a hero in order to seek "justice".

The TV writers also introduced a sub-conflict with Barry's father not respecting his second son's career choice and looking down at forensics as "not real police work." This is in marked contrast to comic book Barry whose parents lived in a small, folksy, Midwestern town for his father had been the town doctor before retiring. Both this conflict and the "tragic origin" sit badly on the character; even the ending has lines that were stolen almost verbatim from Burton's Batman and the Flash was never meant to be a Batman-like hero.

There is also the strange transformation of Iris West from being a reporter in the comic books to being an artist here. Why? Don't know. Despite attempts to shoehorn her career as an artist into the plot to add some conflict to her relationship with Barry it just never comes off right.

I also had a big problem with the costume. It just looks bad in nearly every possible way. In dark lighting it isn't too egregious but in bright daylight all of it's flaws can clearly be seen... The sculpted muscles are, again, too much of a throwback to Burton's Batman; plus, they make the Flash look bulky. Up until some parts of the modern era the Flash was depicted with a leanly muscular runner's physique. The costume here makes him look more like a bodybuilder. The shading and shadowing used to emphasize the muscles also looks very obvious and fake in direct light and, in perhaps the costume's greatest flaw, it looks flocked. The Flash's costume should be sleek... not fuzzy!

So, from a comic book standpoint, was there anything good here?.... A little. The scene where Barry ends up running 30 miles in a matter of seconds while trying to catch a bus because he's late for a date with Iris is a little tribute to the comic book origin where Barry first discovered his powers when he ended up outrunning a cab he was trying to catch because he was late for a date with Iris. The writers also threw in a few other touches which showed they were at least tipping their hats to the show's comic book roots (See the "Flash Facts" below).

The bottom line? For those who have never heard of the comic book Flash before this would have probably been a pretty good introduction for a character who at least had some things in common with the comic book character. The special effects have withstood the test of time which means that for their original time period of the early 1990's they probably blew away most of what people saw on TV. For comic book fans, though, there was probably a lot of confusion and questioning of why the TV writers felt compelled to change so much about the character.

Flash Facts:

The brief appearance of reporter Linda Park is a tribute to the comic book character of the same name. The comic book version of reporter Linda Park, however, was much younger and would become romantically involved with the third version of the Flash -- Wally West.

STAR Labs (Scientific and Technological Advanced Research) was and still is a staple of DC Comics. The labs have branches throughout the DC universe and are often responsible for either saving the day by providing some advanced weapon or special chemical concoction or for starting trouble in the first place when one of their experiements goes awry and produces some monster or superpowered criminal. They have featured most heavily in Superman stories over the years.

STAR Labs is located on Garrick avenue. This is certainly a tribute to the first Flash character (who debuted in 1939) whose secret identity was Jay Garrick -- a research chemist. Likewise, Barry's brother, Jay is probably also a tribute to the Garrick character.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I said we would be startng with a Flash...

And so we are. THE Flash. The DC Comics character... or at least one of them anyway.

Next week marks the (much delayed) conclusion to The Flash: Rebirth comic book mini-series -- the series which returns the character of Barry Allen to the comic book universe.

In honor of this occasion I'm planning on reviewing the entire live-action Flash TV series from the 1990's. Each night a new episode until we run through them all.

I'd like to think I have something of a unique viewpoint because I watched this series when it was first run but back then I wasn't a comic book geek. In the interveneing years I've gathered quite a bit of useless comic book knowledge that I can put to work here.

Therefore, I'm going to be reviewing the episodes on a number of levels -- first, on how well written and acted they are (of course), second on how well they have withstood the passage of time, and third on the comic book roots.

So starting tomorrow night... on your marks.... get set........

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Hello from the corner of Geek and Culture. I'm Stressfactor and I'll be your hostess for... well, for as long as I feel like doing this and feel I have something to say.

So what is "Compound Geekery"? It's a fascination with multiple things geeky and pop culture-y, and perhaps one french fry short of a Happy Meal.

In more practical terms you'll see me talking about things like comic books (and I'm a fan of stuff from the "Golden Age" right up to today), TV Shows old-new-Sci-Fi and not, movies, and lots of other things.

So sit back, if you are so inclined, because we're going to be starting with a Flash...