Tag: Storytelling

Steve Perry

I was 26 before I heard Steve Perry's name, but I was probably 2 the first time I saw his work.

Perry was a writer for Thundercats, a cartoon that's always been dear to my heart. He made the news on comics sites last year, when Steve Bissette revealed Perry was dying of cancer and didn't have a dime to his name.

With help from the Hero Initiative, Perry pulled through, but this past Friday, news came out that he's missing and possibly murdered. Details are incomplete and grisly, and I feel like repeating them here would be exploitative; I'll just give a link to Bissette's blog instead.

But one thing that jumped out at me from that post:

I would welcome a complete listing of Steve's writing credits for [Thundercats and Silverhawks]; please note that the imdb listing for 'Steve Perry' is incorrect, conflating his TV writing credits with another animation writer named Steve Perry (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0675310/), who is possibly the science-fiction novelist Steve Perry. My friend Steve Perry only scripted for story editor Peter Lawrence on the two Rankin/Bass series noted here.

On top of everything else that's horrible about this story, it's not right that Perry's work is not known. And so I've gone through and compiled a list of the writers for each Thundercats episode myself -- I'll publish it in full shortly, but in the meantime, here's a list of Perry's episodes.

  • The Doomgaze
  • Safari Joe
  • Queen of 8 Legs
  • Feliner (2-parter)
  • Tight Squeeze
  • Trapped

(There may be a few more; I'll have to break out my VHS collection to check, as Warner decided some of the episodes on the DVD's didn't need title cards. Or background music. Or to be listed in the correct order. And that the last three years of the show were all the same season.)

Thundercats meant a lot to me. Perry and others filled my youth with fantasy and science fiction and magic and good and evil, with dreams of heroism and nightmares of Mumm-Ra watching me in his cauldron. The news about Perry serves as a jarring reminder of how nasty the real world is, and how unlike those fantasy worlds, where good always triumphs, evil fears its own reflection (at least until season 2), and despite an abundance of weapons, nobody ever really gets hurt.

Gail Simone has suggested honoring Perry by donating to the Hero Initiative, the organization responsible for giving Perry hope this past year. His plight is a tragically common one; there are a whole lot of people in the comics industry who don't see royalties from their work and who can't support themselves later in life.

Thank you, Steve Perry. Justice, truth, honor, and loyalty.

Form and Function

A few weeks back, I rented Hellboy: Sword of Storms. It was a neat little movie, and adhered pretty well to the the comics' folklore vibe. The highlight was a sequence adapting Heads.

And it occurred to me, you know, the best Hellboy stories are 8-page adaptations of folk tales, in which Hellboy himself plays only a minor role. Similarly, wouldn't it be great to see some 10-minute Hellboy animated shorts?

It's a real pity that both 8-page comic stories and 10-minute animated shorts have fallen by the wayside. DC, at least, seems interested in bringing them back: they've been doing 8-page "secondary features" in some of their popular titles, and next week's animated Crisis on Two Earths will also include a 10-minute Spectre short. Which is the perfect length for a Spectre story.

And of course all this has me thinking, Why 22 pages? Why 22 minutes? Why 6-issue arcs? Stories should take all the time they need; no more and no less.

Which isn't to say that rigid parameters can't foster creativity. The BioWare Writing Contest I participated in a few years back had some very tight guidelines -- only so many characters, only one location allowed, and that location has to be a pretty tiny square. But in a way, that stimulated creativity. Sometimes, you need parameters.

Douglas Adams is a favorite example. His best Hitchhiker's Guide work was written for radio, with a rigid three-act structure and length requirement for each episode, with the requisite pacing those things entail. Those episodes were adapted as the first two books of the Trilogy. The third, Life, the Universe and Everything, was adapted from an unused Doctor Who pitch, so it was conceived around a predefined structure as well. The last two books, where Adams took a more freestyle approach, tended to flail a bit; they were adapted by Dirk Maggs for radio a few years back and, for my money, worked much better with his judicious editing.

(The awesomeness of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul does not fit my narrative as, to the best of my knowledge, it wasn't adapted from a radio or TV format. The first Dirk book was, though.)

There are plenty of writers who could benefit from tighter restrictions. Will Eisner put as much plot in a 7-page Spirit story as Brian Michael Bendis does in a 132-page Avengers arc. Sometimes I like longer, decompressed stories that spend more time on the scenery and the atmosphere. But there should still be a place for those weird little Hellboy stories.

I recently read Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall. Its pacing and form were noticeably different from the typical Fables books, because of its format: it was written as a graphic novel, rather than simply collecting 6 issues of a serial comic.

(A tangent on nomenclature: I absolutely despise the term graphic novel as it is commonly used, ie as a synonym for "comic book" used by people who think they're too cool for Spider-Man. However, it is a useful term when used in its original sense, ie a comic written in long form instead of being serialized in stapled, 22-page, monthly increments.)

Of course, 1001 Nights isn't a graphic novel so much as a graphic short story collection -- far from being a longform Fables story that takes its time, it's a series of stories which are shorter and tighter than a typical issue of Fables. So actually, it's more along the lines of those 8-page Hellboy stories I've been yammering about.

More in the "paced like a novel" vein would be DC's upcoming Earth One books. While it is obvious that these stories need to be published, as nobody has retold Superman's origin story in over three weeks, it's going to be interesting seeing them told with a little more breathing room, without the overwhelming, breakneck pace of Superman: Secret Origin.

I kid, but you know, the nice thing about constantly retelling Superman's origin is that now the Siegel heirs get a cut.

At any rate, once the rehashes are done, it would be quite nice to see DC tell some new stories with these characters in this format -- stories as long or as short as they need to be, at whatever pace suits the piece, without having to speed toward a cliffhanger every 22 pages.

V for Vendetta is actually a decent example -- yes, it was serialized, but its chapters don't fit into a consistent, forced length or pace. And while some of the chapters were climactic action sequences of V stabbing people a lot, others had him simply soliloquizing about anarchy.

(And funnily enough, the guy writing Earth One: Superman is J Michael Straczynski, the same guy whose The Brave and the Bold is currently the best 22-page superhero book that actually tells 22-page stories -- but whose run on Thor was decompressed, organic, and even meandering. Which is not a criticism, as I loved his Thor; it's just a statement that the man can write very well in different formats.)

If the world is a just and beautiful place, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a template for the future of television. It manages the rather neat trick of adhering to a rigid structure that also just happens to be noticeably different from the traditional structure of a TV show: three 13-minute acts, each itself featuring a beginning, a middle, an end, and four songs. It's similar to, but distinct from, the standard three-act structure and 44-minute length of an American TV show.

Even The Daily Show -- God, not a week goes by anymore but one of the interviews goes over. Which is swell, but the way this is handled online is completely boneheaded: if you go to Full Episodes on thedailyshow.com, or view an episode on Hulu, you get the broadcast episode, which shows the truncated interview, followed by an admonition to check out the website, followed by Moment of Zen and credits. I can see this as an unfortunate requirement for broadcast, but guys, Internet videos can be more than 22 minutes. Why in the hell do I have to click through to a different page on the site (or, if I'm watching from Hulu, a different site entirely) to watch the rest of the interview? It's viewer-unfriendly, especially if you use your PC as a media center hooked up to your TV. Cut the full interview into the damn episode. Add an extra commercial in the middle if you have to. (It would be swell if you didn't show the exact same commercial at every single break, but that's a separate presumably-silly-and-useless "rant".)

At least they've wised up a little and started showing just the first part of the interview in the broadcast episode and then showing the rest in the "Full Interview" link on the website. It used to be they'd show a chopped-up version of the interview in the broadcast episode, meaning that instead of the Full Interview link picking up where the show left off, it had five minutes' worth of the same content spread out across it.

You know, it seems like the youngest of the major media is also the one with the least rigid requirements for length. Video games can be anything from a three-second WarioWare microgame to a persistent world that players sink years into. People may grouse a bit that Portal or Arkham Asylum is too short, but it doesn't prevent them from being highly-regarded, bestselling titles.

Which is, of course, not to say that longer games don't have to function under tight restrictions. They're often very high-budget affairs with a hell of a lot of people involved (as Dragon Age tries to forcibly remind you with its absurdly slow credits crawl) -- programmers, writers, artists, and so on. The Mass Effect games have voiced player dialogue and let the player choose Shepard's sex, which means every single one of those lines has to be recorded twice. (And frankly that doesn't seem like enough variety -- I have a Samuel L Jackson lookalike who says "aboot".)

And those restrictions are probably why every dialogue choice in ME is broken up into a predictable paragon/neutral/renegade choice. That kind of very-unsubtle delineation is exactly the sort of thing western RPG developers have been trying to get out of (as in both The Witcher and Dragon Age), but in the context of ME it works quite well -- I've even tried my hand at writing in a three-choices, no-hubs dialogue style and it works very organically. (For the ludicrous amount of dialogue in Dragon Age, there were places I could see the seams showing -- spots where I'd have three dialogue options and, as soon as the NPC spoke, knew that all three led to that exact same response. But that's probably a lot harder to notice if you've never written a dialogue tree yourself, and it's certainly an artform in and of itself, giving a response that works equally well for three different questions. I can only think of one occasion in the dozens of hours of Dragon Age where a writer screwed up and had a question hub that began with an NPC answering a specific question in a way that didn't make any sense if the dialogue looped back.)

And of course it's the medium that allows this kind of longform storytelling. Game length is no longer restricted by the arcade environment. Which is, of course, not to say that short-play games don't get made anymore -- Street Fighter 4 is a high-budget, "hardcore gamer" example, but Nintendo's entire business is built around games a casual player can pick up and play for ten minutes at a time. Ditto every Flash game on the Web, and most games on the iPhone.

And, indeed, Internet delivery is going to liberate other media from their restrictions. Eventually, we're bound to see shows like The Daily Show just run more than 22 minutes if they have to, and, God willing, we'll see more offbeat stuff like Dr. Horrible. The Web's given us comics as diverse as Achewood, Dr. McNinja, Templar, Arizona, and FreakAngels, and cartoons from Adventure Time to Homestar Runner to Charlie the Unicorn to Gotham Girls to the complete version of Turtles Forever. It's also allowed MST3K to continue in the form of the downloadable RiffTrax and the direct-order Cinematic Titanic.

Variety is the spice of life. I love comics -- and yeah, that includes mainstream superhero comics. But I'm sick of all of them having the exact same structure. Fortunately, I think we're on the edge of an age of experimentation.

Or another damn market crash. It is an odd-numbered decade now, after all.

Pointless Nostalgia on an Aribtrary Date

Yeah, okay, so it's been awhile. It's been a busy year. Looks like I missed this site's tenth anniversary by a few weeks, but it was December 9, apparently.

2009. 2009, 2009, 2009. You know, the last two years were straight-up law-of-averages affairs, though in different ways. '08 was pretty mediocre all around; no real highs and no real lows. '09...well, if '08 was a flatline, '09 was a sine wave. It was like the "That's good! That's bad." bit on Simpsons. Alternating highs and lows. The best part of '09 was meeting a very nice girl and finding myself, for the first time in my adult life, in an actual relationship. The worst was losing my uncle. And there were peaks and troughs aplenty in-between.

In other nostalgia-y not-quite-news, I've gone and started another damn KateStory -- I didn't miss that anniversary. The sucker's 15 years old now. I can't believe it's already been 5 years since the 10th anniversary.

I reread all 17 previous installments in preparation. In reverse order. And you know, I learned some things.

  • Brent was right about pretty much everything. Books I-III should probably all be considered one book, VI shouldn't be in there at all, comedy is more important than strict adherence to whether or not I have replaced my watch battery, and Final Fantasy VII is not nearly as good as I thought it was when I was 15. (Chrono Trigger, on the other hand...)
  • Speaking of which, IX isn't nearly as horrifying on a reread as it was a year ago when I had to go through and excise all (well, most of) the adolescent bickering. It's actually better than X. X just fucking drags.
  • Going through the old books looking for "best lines" to reuse in the first chapter of XVIII, most of them were written by Brent. I had a pretty good number of runners-up, but there really weren't any with my name on them where I went, "Yes. That is the best line in this book." Though I threw a couple of mine in anyway for the sake of balance. (Of course, I also focused on lines that would work with the phrase "It was [year], and" prepended to them.)
  • I kinda miss the old days when chapters would cut off in mid-sentence. I should try doing more of those.
  • I've named every single book except KateStory Gaiden, which was McDohl's title. Some of them are well-named (I know Brent's a fan of "Midnight Falls. And can't get up.") and some aren't (I think the reason Book III is "Searching for a Plot" instead of "The Search for Plot" is that the latter was the title of Mad's Star Trek III parody).

I'm seeing end-of-the-decade lists pop up everywhere, but have no great urge to put up any of my own. I can't fucking believe I've got my 10-year high school reunion coming up. Feels like I don't have much to show for it, but on the other hand, I've got a pretty good life, all things considered.

Which isn't to say it can't get better. Here's hoping 2010 continues the past year's trend of wonderful things while ending its trend of terrible ones.

Happy New Year.


Reading: Jeez, haven't read a prose book in months; spending entirely too much money on comics. I just finished Fables vol 7 and Usagi Yojimbo vol 1.
Playing: New Super Mario Bros. and Dragon Age: Origins.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

I just caught Repo! The Genetic Opera at my local independent theater. I'd seen the trailer some months back and it had piqued my interest, and I get bulletins on what Chandler Cinemas is doing because the manager, Matt Yenkala, is a friend of mine and runs the local Rocky Horror cast.

The background: test audiences and critics panned the movie, and Lionsgate refused to distribute it, so the makers are taking it on tour personally. Chandler Cinemas was the first stop on their second tour.

It's the sort of movie where if it sounds like something you're going to like, it probably is. A rock opera about a dystopian future with mass organ failure, transplants, and repossessions of same -- yeah, it's pretty clear there's a very selective audience there. But I saw the trailer and thought "That looks awesome," and as far as I'm concerned it was.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: it ain't Shakespeare. The themes, characters, and plot are all pretty shallow. I would add that the lyrics struck me as mediocre (most didn't rhyme, and relied on awkward slant-rhyme like "daughter/monster" and repeating the same three words three times; the lyricist did better when he wasn't trying to rhyme), and some of the songs run together in my head (though that's a common failing in musicals), but by and large the singing was good, and it's a rarity to see a full-on rock opera -- not merely a musical, but a show where most lines are sung rather than spoken.

Critics throwing about phrases like "worst movie ever" or making comparisons to Uwe Boll are just engaging in obnoxious hyperbole. Even if there were nothing else to like about the movie, it's very striking visually -- every scene has something fresh and interesting to catch the eye (and most scenes look like metal album covers).

Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, who should really know better, went for the low-hanging fruit and spent a nine-sentence review mocking Paris Hilton -- but honestly, I find it hard to complain about a movie where she plays a superficially pretty, morally bankrupt substance addict who is an embarrassment to her rich and powerful father. See? You can go for low-hanging fruit and still praise the movie, Pete.

There was a Q&A after the show with director Darren Bousman, co-creator Terrance Zdunich, and...there was a third guy but unfortunately I didn't catch his name; my apologies. Nice guys, all of them, who were just happy to have a theater full of people who "got it" -- it's a movie with limited appeal that was never suited to a mainstream audience, and has been given short shrift by a Hollywood system that doesn't know how to cope with a movie that's neither a summer blockbuster nor winter Oscar-bait.

It's not a brilliant or life-changing film. But it is a very good B movie. Anthony Head steals the show as the Repo Man, there's a lot of really pretty stuff to see, and it's at its best when it remembers to be funny -- which fortunately is most of the movie. (The denouement gets a bit maudlin and is longer than it needs to be, but this is an opera, for cryin' out loud.) I thought it was a fun damn way to spend a Thursday night, especially in a house packed with enthusiastic theatergoers. If it sounds like it's up your alley, it probably is; check it out if the tour comes your way, and give it a rent once it's out on DVD if it doesn't.

Halloween '08, Part 3: Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula

Continuing from my previous post:

Bram Stoker's Dracula was my favorite of the four movies, and here's why: it managed to create the most faithful adaptation of the events of the book, while totally subverting its theme. Also, it had boobies.

The movie goes to great lengths to adapt the book accurately, from the inclusion of Holmwood and Quincey, a pair of redundant characters who are usually left out of movie adaptations, to details like Dracula climbing on the walls of the castle like an insect, feeding a baby to his wives, becoming younger after feeding on Lucy, and appearing on the streets of London in broad daylight; Harker going prematurely gray after his ordeal; Dracula's wives surrounding Van Helsing and, unable to break his protective circle, killing his horses.

And yet, in the end, the viewer is left with a wholly different feeling about Dracula: far from being evil incarnate, he's more of a sympathetic character. It's the uptight Victorians who are the real villains here; Hopkins's Van Helsing is out of his damned mind, chopping a woman's head off and then casually discussing it over dinner, after dismissing her as "a bitch of the Devil, a whore of darkness" while laughing giddily.

The sexuality that's implied in the book, and in most of the film adaptations, is overt here. Yet, it seems far less perverse than the society that condemns it. Lucy talks lustily about "unspeakable acts of desperate passion on the parlour floor", and this seems a far more natural thing for a nineteen-year-old girl than choosing a husband. She doesn't look like she's suffering when she's clutching at herself during an "attack" by Dracula, but she certainly does when she's having her head cut off by Van Helsing.

Yes, Dracula's origin story and his motivations are original to this version, as are his meetings with Mina under the identity of Prince Vlad. Most importantly, Mina's consent, and indeed insistence, on being turned is original here. And that's an integral part of the film: when all is said and done, it's clear she belongs with Dracula, her exciting and mysterious ancient love, not the boringly conventional and dull Harker (a role which you'd think Keanu Reeves would be perfect for, but which he still manages to drag down). Dracula is a sympathetic character, and thus the whole story is turned on its head.

Thematically, it's The Rocky Horror Picture Show played straight.

No, hear me out.

I'm not comparing the quality of the two movies, and certainly not of the two directors. Rocky is an awful damned film, which is of course part of its appeal. Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is, by contrast, an utterly brilliant film. But thematically, the two have a lot in common: a fresh take on monster movies of the 1930's, centering around the conflict between old, prudish attitudes toward sex and modern, more liberated ones. Both movies focus on straightlaced couples seduced by a character who's traditionally depicted as a villain but who, in the end, is far more relatable than the eccentric German professor who seeks to destroy him.

Which is not to say that Frank-N-Furter and Dracula are good guys -- they're both cannibals, for God's sake. Frank kills Eddie and serves him up for dinner; Dracula throws a baby to his wives (and reminders are given throughout the movie that he is, in fact, Vlad the Impaler). And so both of them are still monsters, and there's no defending those acts -- saying they're another metaphor for breaking taboos is a copout. Less a copout, perhaps, is to contrast these actions with their sexual behavior: it's not sex that makes them monstrous, it's violence; the typical western notion that violence is more acceptable than sex is another piece of those perverse and puritanical social values that both movies criticize. (In Dracula's case, it also allows for the contrast between a charming, Lugosi-style Dracula and a monstrous, Schreck-style one within the span of the same movie.)

So that's where the Coppola movie shines: Stoker's Victorian sensibilities are wrong, but his story can be easily adapted to late-twentieth-century themes -- perhaps because Stoker's novel itself is about the clash between the ancient and modern worlds. (Not to say, by any stretch, that modern films aren't prudish in their own way -- MPAA-approved nude scenes are still utterly absurd, and this is a movie chock-full of graphic sex scenes where nobody ever completely disrobes.) Ironic, then, that Stoker's name is in the title -- this was the first in a trend of films with authors' names, not always appropriately, stuck in the titles to differentiate them from previous adaptations of the same work (the worst offender being Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which bore even less resemblance to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book than Disney's animated version; if memory serves its credits didn't even say "Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling" but "Based on characters from the book by Rudyard Kipling").

Anyhow. All this to say, Francis Ford Coppola makes pretty good movies. I know, amazing observation, right? That is why you read this blog. Because you enjoy watching someone take 800 words to say something everybody already knew.

Go vote tomorrow.

Halloween '08, Part 2: Three Dracula Movies

Halloween's my favorite holiday, and this year, in celebration of the season, I watched four different versions of Dracula: 1922's silent German Nosferatu, the 1931 Bela Lugosi Universal classic Dracula, the 1958 Hammer Horror of Dracula starring Christopher Lee, and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula from '92. (I was hoping to squeeze in the 1979 Dracula with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier, but ran out of time. Maybe next year.)

The most obvious and banal observation I can make is that each of the four films is the product of its time. But interestingly, they all stayed fairly close to the source material.

Nosferatu is an excellent example of the art of silent film, and does an admirable job of conveying the plot with minimal dialogue. The acting is, of course, purely physical and greatly exaggerated. Schreck's makeup is suitably creepy; his ratlike features and too-long limbs and fingers grant him a sense of the otherworldly and frightening. The cinematography adds to the effect with the shots of Count Orlok's shadow on the wall, and, most famously, the Count springing up out of his coffin as if his feet are on a hinge. In the version I saw, the soundtrack was fully orchestrated; I expect this detracts from the authenticity of the experience, but it added to the atmosphere.

It's no wonder Prana Film lost Florence Stoker's copyright infringement suit, as the film's efforts to dodge infringement accusations are decidedly half-assed. The film's first two acts are virtually identical to the novel's, and Count Orlok, Hutter, Ellen, and Knock are clearly the same characters as Dracula, Harker, Mina, and Renfield, respectively. (Harding, Lucy, Professor Bulwer, and Dr. Sievers are minor enough characters to have plausible deniability, but their names are still suspiciously similar to Holmwood, Lucy, Professor Van Helsing, and Dr. Seward.)

Most of the movie is a fairly straight-up adaptation -- Hutter, as in the original story, is a realtor, and is bound for Orlok's castle to sell him property in his hometown. (The movie deviates from the book by making Knock/Renfield a realtor as well; the 1931 and 1992 versions follow suit.) Hutter says goodbye to his wife, meets spooked villagers who warn him of wolves in the woods and refuse to take him to the castle, and takes a scary stagecoach ride with a mysterious driver. When he arrives at Orlok's castle, we see all the expected symbolic scenes: he cuts himself, Orlok lunges for the wound but is repelled by the cross; Hutter falls asleep and wakes up with bite marks on his neck. After Hutter finds Orlok sleeping in a coffin, the count leaves him for dead and departs for his new home on a ship.

The ship sequence is expanded in significance compared to the book, but to the same result: Orlok kills everyone on the boat, leaving only the captain's body tied to the wheel.

The last act seems truncated by comparison. It's creepy enough -- the seeming plague come to the city, with people dying left and right, and the angry mob led by Professor Bulwer against Knock -- but Orlok's defeat ultimately seems anticlimactic. No turning Lucy into a vampire, no stake through the heart; the significance of multiple coffins filled with soil from his homeland is hinted but never comes to any payoff. He simply stays out too late and dies by exposure to sunlight. But that in itself is probably Nosferatu's most lasting contribution to the story and the genre: it introduced the idea of vampires not merely being weakened by exposure to sunlight but actually dying on contact with it.

Moving on to 1931: it struck me how different this Dracula is from its best-known contemporary in the Universal Monster series. The 1931 Frankenstein has very little to do with its source material, while the 1931 Dracula follows Stoker's story fairly closely, with only a few major deviations: Renfield, not Harker, is the realtor who goes to Castle Dracula to close the sale on Carfax Abbey, and Dr. Seward is Mina's father.

That aside, we've got the same staples noted above: spooked villagers, the coach ride, the blood and the cross, the coffin, the attack, the departure by ship, and the arrival of the same with its crew all dead. We also see Dracula's wives, who show up in the 1958 and 1992 versions as well.

Swapping Renfield in for Harker does a nice job of explaining his madness, and also serves to throw out Harker's unlikely escape from the castle, one of the more problematic parts of the original story.

And of course in Lugosi's Dracula and Frye's Renfield, we get the two best characters in the film. Lugosi's Dracula stands in stark contrast to Schreck's Orlok; Schreck is immediately scary, while Lugosi is charming with menace below the surface.

This version includes Lucy in more than a cameo; as in the book, Dracula bites her (after appearing at the window as a thoroughly hokey rubber bat), Van Helsing attempts a blood transfusion, and she turns anyway; unlike in the book, this doesn't take an agonizingly long series of trial-and-error attempts to stop Dracula from coming through her window every night (though part of that sequence appears later in the movie, with Van Helsing hanging wolfsbane around Mina's neck and the nurse removing it). Lucy's story, curiously, is left dangling here; she becomes a vampire, but the heroes never bother to track her down. Presumably, like Mina, she reverts to her old self when Dracula is killed.

Dracula starts feeding on Mina and then, for reasons not adequately explained, decides to show up and hang out around the scene of the crime long enough for Van Helsing to notice he doesn't have a reflection; in an iconic moment, he breaks the mirror.

As in the book, Renfield betrays his master for Mina's sake and Dracula eventually strangles him. Unlike the book, Dracula shows up to gloat some more; Van Helsing gloats back and tells him his plan to kill him. Once again we get the multiple coffins containing Transylvanian soil.

No chase back to Castle Dracula in this version; Van Helsing corners him in Carfax Abbey and stakes him there. Mina reverts and she and Jonathan leave Van Helsing behind.

In the end, there's a reason this is the definitive Dracula movie. It's not as creepy as Nosferatu, but it's bigger and has a more satisfying third act. The sets are gorgeous, and Lugosi's charisma (and eastern European accent) make him the Dracula all others would be compared to and most would imitate to some extent. The pacing is good and a lot of extraneous material from the book is removed; the changes are mostly good ones.

Speaking of changes from the source material, the 1958 version probably deviates the most out of the four, while still keeping fairly true to the story. That version starts much like the others -- Harker goes to Castle Dracula, except this time he's a librarian rather than a realtor, and the most interesting early twist is that he knows who Dracula is and is actually there to kill him. It seems a little farfetched that he writes this all down in a diary that he keeps not-really-hidden in the desk in his bedroom, but as the plot develops it becomes clear that the diary is insurance in case he fails his mission.

Lee plays Dracula similarly to Lugosi -- charming and eccentric; perhaps a little colder than Lugosi's version. Much of the typical foreshadowing -- the mirror, Jonathan cutting himself -- is missing; instead, a single Dracula wife feigns being a damsel in distress, and then bites Harker. Dracula appears at that point, looking crazed, and with blood around his mouth. Here we see what may be this version's biggest departure from the previous films: cinematic sex and violence were getting more overt by 1958, and in fact the Hammer Horror series was on the leading edge of the trend. Horror of Dracula is tame by modern standards, but pursued titillation that the Universal version didn't. You don't quite see the female vampire sink her teeth into Harker's neck, but this movie comes closer to that shot than the 1931 film did, and shows blood around her mouth and Dracula's afterward. As for the "sex" part, the inherent sexuality of the story is still veiled, but there is an element of the erotic to the scene, and the female vampire is one of several women in the film to wear a revealing dress.

Harker lives to fight another day, but only one more. Like the 1931 version, this film throws out the hard-to-believe "Harker gets away" part of the book. Unlike the 1931 version, it replaces it with the even-harder-to-believe premise that he waits until right before sunset to try to kill Dracula, and kills the wife first so she can scream and wake the Count. This seems like particularly poor planning on Harker's part given that he has the presence of mind to hide his diary where someone will find it first.

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) turns up looking for Harker, finds him vampiric and sleeping, and stakes him. Between the scene in the crypt, Harker's diary (which he acquires from the traditional spooked villagers), and the carriage he saw tearing out the gate carrying a coffin as he arrived, he determines that Dracula's headed to London to replace his dead wife with Jonathan's fiancee. In this version, Lucy is engaged to Jonathan, and is Holmwood's sister; Holmwood is married to Mina.

Holmwood, with good reason, is originally skeptical of Van Helsing, but as Dracula goes after Lucy and Dr. Seward (a minor character in this version) misdiagnoses her with anemia, Mina seeks his help. We get the transfusion scene again in this version, as well as the wreath of garlic around her neck that the maid then removes. Lucy apparently dies, Van Helsing reveals Jonathan's diary, they go to the crypt and stake her.

As Van Helsing and Holmwood try to track Dracula's coffin down (there's no Carfax Abbey in this version, and neither is there a ship scene; Castle Dracula is within a day's ride of London and Dracula came by coach). As in the previous movies, Dracula needs to sleep in a coffin in his own home soil, and in this version he isn't capable of transforming into wolf, mist, or bat, so his mobility is limited.

While they're out looking for him, Dracula makes his move (leading me to wonder why they didn't perform the search in the daytime) and turns Mina. Holmwood discovers what's happened when he hands her a cross and, as in the book, it burns her. He and Van Helsing go to the morgue to find Dracula's coffin, but it's gone; in another unexpected twist, it's inside Holmwood's house. As Dracula attacks Mina again, Van Helsing finds the coffin and throws a crucifix into it, preventing Dracula from returning to it and forcing him to flee with Mina back to his castle. At last, the chase scene!

Van Helsing corners Dracula for a good, solid fight scene, ending in sunrise and Dracula's death. Holmwood saves Mina, who was buried alive; she returns to normal. Presumably Harker and Van Helsing didn't know that killing Dracula would cause his victims to revert, because if they did, then none of the movie makes any sense.

This version, while IMO the least memorable of the four, is interesting for managing to throw some twists into the story, most notably Harker's revelation that he knows who Dracula is and intends to kill him and Dracula hiding inside Holmwood's own home. The decision to include Holmwood while minimizing Seward's role and omitting Renfield's is interesting. And again, the increase in sex and violence over the previous films is notable.

I think my biggest complaint is that Dracula's transformation from man to monster occurs too quickly in this movie -- Christopher Lee doesn't get nearly enough lines, which is a pity given his fantastic voice and delivery. Nonetheless, it remains one of his most memorable roles in a long and distinguished career, and with good reason.

That leaves the 1992 version, and I have enough to say about that one for it to be its own separate post. To be continued!

Why I Love The Walking Dead

Break time again. Figure I may as well balance that "why I hate" I'd been meaning to write with a "why I love" I've been meaning to write.

My new favorite comic of the past year is The Walking Dead.

Actually, issue #1 is free online. Go read it.

Did you read it? Okay. You probably have a pretty good idea why I like it. But let me elaborate: the real reason I like it is that, twenty-four issues later, it's still that good. Things keep happening. From a premise that generally fizzles by the end of an hour-and-a-half movie, we've got a series that's still interesting after over two years.

I think the appeal is that we're looking at a microcosm of life. In this tiny community of characters, we see characters become close and then drift apart, families torn asunder, and a hero forced to keep the group together who finally starts to buckle under the strain. And we see all this happen at breakneck speed -- what we're seeing is life in fast motion, spurred on by the characters' knowledge that they could die at any moment.

It's easily the best zombie story I've ever seen, but the zombies themselves are incidental -- this story could take place on a deserted island, in an Orwellian dystopia, on a hostile planet, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (well, I guess that last one isn't so far off) -- in any setting where a tiny group tries to fight seemingly impossible odds just to survive one day to the next.

My uncle suggested that the draw of zombie stories is people's desire to see a story broken down into us-versus-them tribalism. I think that's a big part of it, but I think it's bigger than that: it's life distilled down to its component parts, people growing and changing and coming together and breaking apart, all sped up by the fear of imminent death.

And that's why The Walking Dead is my favorite comic right now. Some other comics I'm reading:

Transformers. I'm ambivalent about this one. On the one hand, it's nice seeing more G1; on the other, Jesus Christ how many times are we going to have to sit through the origin story?! By my count, there are already 5 different damn Transformers universes (G1 cartoon, Marvel comic, Dreamwave comic, Robots in Disguise, Armada/Energon/Cybertron) in the US -- I'm not even going to get into the various Japanese series that never made it over here -- and a sixth on the way in the upcoming (ugh) Michael Bay movie. Why do we need another one?

Don't get me wrong, the new comic's solid so far, but...why do it like this? Why start from scratch yet again? Why not do something that adds to the universe -- more War Within-era prequels, some stories set in-between G1 and Beast Wars, or even after Beast Machines? (Preferably some post-BM stories that are published by a company that has some sort of distribution besides ordering online and won't get its license revoked after four issues.)

Batman and the Monster-Men. Matt Wagner tells a good, solid year-two story (much better than, oh, say, Year Two), and examines a turning point in Batman's career: thinking he's finally got crime in Gotham on the run, he realizes he's instead created an arms race: he may have taken care of the petty thugs, but now he has mad scientists and supervillains to deal with. Add the fact that this is adapted from an original 1940 Kane/Finger story and you've got some serious fan service. Plus I just like Hugo Strange and don't think he gets enough play -- he is, after all, the original member of Batman's rogues' gallery, predating both Joker and Catwoman by a few months. That and I just dig Wagner's art.

Batman has always been one of my favorite characters, and always a book I simply can't stand to read. The character's been handled poorly for the past twenty years. But it seems that we're in a serious turnaround now, and with Morrison and Dini taking over his two books soon, I'm going to have to start picking them up.

Speaking of Morrison, good Lord that guy writes a lot of comics these days. Seven Soldiers has been fantastic, as has All-Star Superman.

Ellis has been putting out a hell of a lot of books too, and for somebody who hates superheroes, he doesn't seem to write much else these days. Iron Man: Extremis has been a great book, and I particularly liked the retelling of the origin in the most recent issue -- the original Iron Man armor is my favorite; it just looks like such a godawful burden to wear. And that was a vital part of the original character: Tony wore the suit to stay alive, not because he set out to be a hero. The reluctant hero theme in the early sixties was vital to ushering in the Marvel Age: Spider-Man was just trying to pay the rent, the Hulk and the Thing were desperate to cure their conditions, and Iron Man put the suit on because he had shrapnel lodged in his heart.

Tony's new nano-armor is a great arc-ending concept, but I'm not really looking forward to seeing it in-continuity. Hopefully it, like the Spider Armor, is done away with by the end of Civil War.

Dead Girl: I was a huge X-Statix fan from the get-go, and disappointed to see the book go (I blame the editors for not just letting the creatives run with the Princess Di story; I think any reader would agree that was the jump-the-shark point of the series). So it's great to see the team back again, and with the high-concept twist of exploring the very nature of comic book death. Dr. Strange is the perfect vehicle for this story, I'm wracking my brain trying to figure out who the Pitiful One could be, and the art is gorgeous -- I was worried when I heard Allred wouldn't be doing the pencils, but honestly with him doing the inks I can't tell the difference.

I've also been digging the comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and it finally hit me last night that the protagonist is a dead ringer for Arthur Dent. As Gaiman is a well-known Adams fan (even wrote a book about him), there's no way this is coincidence.

Looking forward to work from Busiek (Superman, Aquaman, Marvels 2, and of course Astro City) and wondering what Priest is up to these days.

Oh, and Superman/Batman punked out: the guy in the Batman Beyond costume is Tim, not Terry. Booooo.

Seems like I must be forgetting something, but damned if I can think what it is right now. Well, I'm sure this won't be my last post on the subject of comics.