Shape Shifting Aliens in the Snow.
Imagine fighting a shape shifting alien while not knowing whether the people around you were friends or foes. Now imagine experiencing this life or death struggle in the snow. This is what John Carpenter’s The Thing presents to the audience.
The Thing works well as a horror movie with its shape shifting alien that inhabits the bodies of its victims. The sense of fear that runs through the movie is due, in large part, to the paranoia caused by not knowing who the alien has infected. But Carpenter’s use of the snowy landscape of Antarctica adds a visceral element to the horror story. The hostile environment created by the snow and cold adds a level of conflict (man v. nature) that any viewer who has experienced a harsh winter can relate to. Viewers have never faced off against a shape shifting alien but many have experienced snowy days when temperatures dipped into negative digits.
The snow and the cold of The Thing intensify the harsh experiences the characters endure while fighting a shape shifting alien. Carpenter’s use of snow and cold also provide a visceral connection for viewers who have experienced harsh winters. We may have to imagine shape shifting aliens but harsh winters are all too real (especially for those of us in the Midwest).
The Thing (1982) starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, and Keith David. Directed by John Carpenter.
Three Views of the Zombie Phenomenon
I’m about done with zombies. There are too damn many zombie movies, zombie TV shows, zombie video games, zombie bumper stickers, and zombie fuck all else these days. I have avoided zombie inspired movies and such this Halloween season for that very reason. When I saw the movie White Zombie on one of my channels last night I glossed over it. It wasn’t until I noticed that it was released in 1932 that I became moderately interested. I decided to give it a view simply because nothing else seemed more appealing (I know that’s not a sound reason to watch a movie but there it is).
I watched White Zombie with no specific expectations. All I did was try to put myself in the mindset to appreciate a movie from that time period. I must say that after one viewing (and it is a movie that I intend to view again) it is a solid movie. What I found most interesting about the movie is it got me thinking about my view of zombies. I grew up with George A. Romero zombies and to this day I will argue that his zombie movies are some of the best. But White Zombie is not in the style of a Romero movie. This movie is more in the style of a Wes Craven movie inspired by Wade Davis’ book, The Serpent and the Rainbow.
The Serpent and the Rainbow, both movie and book share the same name, focuses on the zombie phenomenon. I saw the movie first and it put a serious scare on me (Wes Craven usually does). It also left enough of an impact that I picked up a used copy of Davis’ book a few years later. Davis’ book is an engaging text that addresses the concept of zombies from both cultural and scientific viewpoints. Craven’s movie can best be described as an artistic interpretation that obviously lends itself more to horror than science, but Craven doesn’t exclude science in the attempt to scare the viewer. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie does the same. It has the elements of a classic horror movie (it is a must view if you are a fan of Bela Lugosi), and it also has a few scenes that attempt to provide a scientific reason, albeit thin, for the existence of zombies. This scientific element provides a perspective that makes both movies and the book worth your time.
Zombies are so commonplace in the horror genre today that they are bordering on cliché. In order to find some scary zombies it may be best to travel back to the 1980s for The Serpent and the Rainbow and the 1930s for White Zombie. What makes these selections scary is the sense of what could possibly happen no matter how improbable it seems, and this is what a good scare is.
White Zombie (1932) directed by Victor Halerpin starring Bela Lugosi and Madge Bellamy
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) by Wade Davis
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) directed by Wes Craven starring Bill Pullman and Cathy Tyson
Reenactment and Catharsis
John Steinbeck explains why veterans often do not discuss their combat experiences in “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk.” Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara explore a similar topic in the film In Country. Attie and O’Hara follow a group of men over the course of a weekend as the reenact Vietnam War era patrols, ambushes, and fire fights. The documentary isn’t as much a look into the world of reenacting as it is a look into the mind of the combat veteran.
Several of the participants in the reenactment are veterans of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The audience is given some insights as to why these men who have experienced war first hand would want to reenact combat. One reenactor, a former soldier of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, states that he feels “whole” and “stronger” when he is with his fellow reenactors. Another reenactor, a veteran of the war in Iraq, discusses how the military philosophy of adapt and overcome desensitized him to feeling core emotions. The audience is left to infer that by reenacting with fellow veterans he is seeking to find part of what he left on the battlefield. All of veterans who reenact give varied reasons why they participate but each man is searching for something.
One of more poignant moments of the film is a piece of archival footage from Vietnam. A reporter asks a soldier, “You think you will ever be able to forget it?” The soldier replies, “No, I won’t.” This may be at the heart of the reason why these men chose to reenact. Steinbeck states that some men experience a form of amnesia that causes them to forget combat and this is why they won’t talk about it. Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara show us many veterans remember combat all too well and that reenacting may be a way to address and cope with those memories.
In Country (2015) directed by Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara.
What We Can Learn From Historical Reenactments
Did you ever play ‘war’ as a child (maybe a few of you played ‘doctor’ but that’s a topic for a different post)? Have you ever played Call of Duty, Brothers in Arms, or some other similar video game and wondered about its historical accuracy and what it would be like to participate in historical battles? My experience with historical military video games is limited, but I have engaged in a wide variety of war games ranging from cap guns as a child to paintball games in my twenties. I think those experiences combined with my interest in history has drawn me to visit several historical reenactments overs the years. This same interest is what drew me to Charlie Schroeder’s book Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactments. If you want to learn about historical reenactments and the people who participate in them you will want to read Schroeder’s book.
Schroeder began thinking about history and reenacting after a visit to Old Fort MacArthur Days outside Los Angeles. He wondered, “What if I could reenact my way through history?” The answer to that question is an informative and entertaining memoir that spans over a half dozen time periods with reenactments ranging from the Roman Empire to the Vietnam War. Schroeder’s first hand experiences provide an informative look into the motivations of many historical reenactors while also entertaining the reader with Schroeder’s growing obsession with history. He states, “When I started my journey, I didn’t think I’d become so enamored with the past….” This growing obsession with the past leads Schroeder to one of the primary motivations for reenacting historical events, “Reenacting shrinks the broad subject of history to a personal scale, away from the dates and ideas to something we can all relate to, the human experience.”
Charlie Schroeder’s Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactments is informative and enjoyable on a couple levels. It is an entertaining memoir of one man’s experiences in the world of historical reenactments. It also provides an informative insight into why men and women participate in historical reenactments, and how we as audience members can learn a little more about the human experience through their hard work at reenactments.
Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment (2012) by Charlie Schroeder
Doing the Impossible
Are you familiar with 24 Hour Comic Day (if you are then skip a few sentences)? Scott McClould came up with the idea in 1990. The premise is pretty straight forward; create a 24 page comic book, from idea to completion, in 24 hours. 24 Hour Comic Book Day was officially established in 2004, and since then creators gather once a year to take up the challenge. Milan Erceg’s documentary 24 Hour Comic follows one group of creators in Portland during the allotted 24 hour time frame. Erceg’s film is both inspirational and sobering in its presentation of comic book creators and their books
Erceg follows a varied group of eight comic book creators in his documentary. They range from a thirteen year old attempting her first 24 Hour Comic challenge to her father who is participating in his sixteenth challenge and several other creators with a variety of 24 Hour Comic Day experiences. The film provides both background and motivation for each of the creators. Erceg also incorporates interviews with individuals familiar with the comic book industry who provide insight into the challenges of creating and publishing comic books.
Watching these eight creators in action is quite an inspirational experience. Erceg provides insight into the creators’ minds and what each hopes to achieve. Their creative processes are laid out for the audience to see and you can’t help but feel motivated. But the movie is also sobering in its presentation of how difficult it is to be successful as a comic book creator. Erceg informs the audience that illustrators, on average, make more than comic book creators. This statistic is reinforced in a few of the interviews with the creators at the 24 Hour Comic Day. The viewer can’t help but ask his or herself, “Do I do what I love or do I do what will pay?”
24 Hour Comic is worth a watch for anyone interested in the creative process that goes into creating a comic book from idea to completion. Erceg’s documentary is also a realistic observation that addresses how difficult it is to make a living creating comic books. Scott McCloud says that 24 Hour Comic Day is, “Asking yourself to do the impossible and then doing it.” That quote may be in reference to 24 Hour Comic Day, but it could also be applied to making a living creating comic books.
24 Hour Comic (2017). Directed by Milan Erceg
Advertising and Historical Perspective
Do you remember a time when there were advertisements for odd, wondrous, and absolutely need to have items in comic books? If you don’t remember that time you should know that X-Ray Spexs, Kryptonite Rocks, Switchblade Combs, and numerous other novelty items were sold through advertisements placed in comic books. If you are feeling a bit nostalgic for days past or are interested in comic book history then Mail-Order Mysteries Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! by Kirk Demarais is worth a read.
Mail-Order Mysteries is a fascinating look into the world of novelty product advertising in comic books primarily from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Kirk Demarais reviews over 150 mail order items that promise all things from “Super Powers and Special Abilities” to “Better Living Through Mail Order.” Demarais breaks the reviews of the mail order items into sections that include: what the potential purchaser would imagine the item to be, what was actually sent to the purchaser, and an often humorous customer satisfaction review. Demarais also includes copies of the original print advertisements and photographs of the actual items for comparison.
There are many informative books about the history and importance of comic books (see my entry about Grant Morrison’s Supergods), but none that I’ve read address product advertising in comic books. Demarais’ book gives the reader some insight into who, according to advertisers, was reading comic books in the 60s and 70s. These readers were interested in “Super Powers and Special Abilities” such X-Ray Spex and Charles Atlas Fitness Programs to “Oddities” such as Sea-Monkeys and Venus Fly Traps. Mail-Order Mysteries provides a historical context of a time when print advertising was an essential component of comic books, and that advertising was a reflection of the demographic that read comic books.
Mail-Order Mysteries Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! will provide a bit of nostalgia for some readers and an interesting historical perspective for any reader interested in comic book history. Demarais’ book is worth a read whether you are looking for relive days gone by or further your study of comic books.
Mail-Order Mysteries Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! (2011) by Kirk Demarais
or Why You Should Read Supergods
There is a difference between reading comics and being a reader of comic books. Reading comic books is a form of escapism (this argument can be made for most all fiction). There is nothing wrong with a bit of escapism now and again but it is passive form of entertainment at best. Critical readers of comic books (or any type of literature for that matter) are analytical in their process. To be a critical reader of comic books requires that one actively analyze the text, culture, ourselves, and how all three interact. Grant Morrison’s Supergods is required reading for anybody who wants to become a critical reader of comic books.
Morrison’s Supergods is a well balanced mix of comic book history, critical analysis of comic book heroes, and personal memoir. All three elements can help develop the skills necessary to critically analyze comic books. Morrison provides a history of comics starting with the Golden Age and wraps up around about 2010. This history of comic books is a helpful resource for anybody who wants to know how comic books fit into our culture and what roles they have played in society for the past eighty-odd years. Morrison also provides the reader with some interesting analyses of comic book characters (heroes and villains alike). These analyses show the reader how comic book characters are often representations of society and/or ourselves. This is evident where Morrison states, “We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be.” Finally, Supergods is part memoir. Morrison shares with the reader his personal history with comic books and the impact they’ve had on his life as both reader and creator. This memoir gives the reader insight into the writers and artists who breathe life into the comic books and how their lives influence their work.
Reading a comic book is a great way to spend some time, but it is short sighted to think that comic books are nothing more than passive escapism. Comic books, like any other type of literature, can offer insights about society and ourselves. In order to recognize these insights it is important to become a critical reader, and Supergods is a great resource for such an endeavor.
Supergods (2011) by Grant Morrison