Tuesday, September 15, 2020

More Capsule Reviews in the Time of Coronavirus (4)

Batman and Bill

When I went to see the film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I remember gasping in surprise (and excitement) when I saw Bill Finger—a comics writer widely acknowledged but never officially credited as instrumental in developing the character of Batman—receive screen credit in the film’s opening title sequence. I was aware that Bob Kane, who came up with the initial idea of Batman, had contractually been given sole official credit as the character’s creator from the very beginning and that Finger, a prolific writer who primarily worked as a ghostwriter in comics for most of his career, had died penniless and in obscurity.

The Hulu documentary Batman and Bill tells the full story that led to the credit Finger received on the film and now on all subsequent Batman productions. Much of the film focuses on the relentless detective work of Marc Tyler Nobleman, a writer who became obsessed with uncovering the story of Finger, his involvement with the creation of Batman, and his crusade to get Finger credit.

Finger’s involvement with Batman has always been an open secret in the industry—though Kane came up with the initial idea of the character, Finger wrote most if not all of the earliest stories and reportedly suggested many of the elements that became a signature of the character, such as the cowl, dark colors, scalloped cape, the batcave, batmobile, and many of the villains. Finger was essentially considered an early member of Kane’s shop—a ghost who also did other work for DC—and died in obscurity in 1974.

Unlike the more naive Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman and notoriously gave away the rights to the character for $130, Kane shrewdly leveraged a sweetheart deal with DC Comics that gave him sole creator credit and a share of the licensing and profits. As far as I know, the contract has never been made public, which the documentary seems to confirm.

Adding to the mystery was the fact that Finger had no known direct heirs or descendants, who would be the only people with any standing to make a claim. His line seemed to end with Finger’s son, who died in the 1990s of AIDS. However, in a quirk of fate, Nobleman discovered that Finger’s son actually had been briefly married and produced a daughter. After Nobleman connected with the family, he learned that Finger’s involvement in the creation of Batman was part of family lore and had hung over the family like a dark cloud. Both Finger and Finger’s son made occasional attempts to get DC Comics to make amends with little luck. While DC never denied Finger’s claim outright, they never, of course, made any concessions. (Throughout, the family made clear their main goal was simply getting Finger credit).

(Kane himself does not come off well—while in moments of guilt he acknowledged Finger’s work, including in his memoir, at the end he seemed to double-down on the myth that he was Batman’s sole creator.)

Though the family by then felt they no longer had the energy or resources to pursue the claim further, with the encouragement and support of Nobleman and others, including family and friends who were attorneys, they again approached DC. To their credit, again due to Finger’s well known involvement in the creation of the character, DC treated the family amicably and with a degree of understanding, inviting them to premieres and other events celebrating the character; his granddaughter also was invited to comics conventions where she got the opportunity to speak about her grandfather and their cause. After some legal back and forth, an agreement was soon reached—the family prudently came to an agreement rather than pursue a protracted legal fight, though they used the threat of potential litigation as leverage. The outcome was the credit given to Finger on the film and in other media where creative credit is given: “Created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.”

I found the documentary moving—after Siegel and Shuster (and, over at Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby), Finger’s story ranks among the great injustices in the comics industry. Fittingly, an award presented annually at the San Diego Comic-Con that recognizes comics writers—one deceased and one still living each year—who have not been adequate recognition during their lifetimes for their work was named the Bill Finger Award.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the fascinating and salacious story of William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, and the women with whom he appeared to have lived with in a polyamorous relationship, Sarah Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne. (Marston was legally married to Holloway, had children with Byrne, and the two women continued to live with each other after Marston’s early death at age 53).

Though the family has dismissed the details of the story—which the filmmakers acknowledge is based on conjecture—it is nevertheless, at times, a moving account of their complex relationship and arrangement. The story is less successful when portraying their sexual life—though rated R due to subject matter, the film nevertheless keeps the portrayals relatively tame and in good taste; however, given that their relationship may have involved BDSM (which is partly relevant because the early Wonder Woman comics notoriously featured such acts explicitly in the comic book), these scenes sometimes unintentionally come off as humorous. While all the actors are fine, including Luke Evans as Marston and Bella Heathcote as Olive, Rebecca Hall particularly shines as Elizabeth.

Nevertheless, by the end of the film, I felt sufficiently moved by the story and their love for each other that I could get past these scenes. 

Rebel in the Rye
Actor Nicholas Hoult, who has been on a roll lately (and who I’ve followed since his film debut in About a Boy when he was about 13), has become the recent go-to actor of portraying writers: he recently played J.R.R. Tolkien in Tolkien (2019) and also appeared as J.D. Salinger in 2017’s Rebel in the Rye. I actually saw Tolkien in the theaters on its release earlier this year and was not aware of Rebel in the Rye until I came across it recently on Hulu.

What’s striking about the film is that they are similarly about two writers who were deeply scarred psychology by war, which manifested itself in their writing: Tolkien was gassed in World War I whereas Salinger saw combat on D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and other skirmishes in World War II (which included liberating the Dachau Nazi concentration camp).

Of the two, I found Rebel in the Rye to be the slightly better film, though it only lightly touches on Salinger’s questionable behavior related to pursuing (and perhaps grooming) much younger women. (The film came out about the time the #metoo movement was born.) In contrast, Tolkien focuses more on his relationship with the woman who would become his wife. Nevertheless, both are fine movies that provide some insight into the writers and the experiences that informed their writing.

Margin Call
I want to give a shout out to the outstanding film Margin Call, a perennial favorite of mine which I have watched several times over the years (meaning it’s shown up more than once in my end of year Entertainment Roundups!)

Set at a fictional Wall Street investment bank over a 24-hour period during the start of the 2007–08 financial crisis, the film’s events are set in motion by the discovery of an investment bubble that threatens to bring down the firm by a low-level risk management officer (Zachary Quinto), who is given a head’s up by his boss who has just been laid off (Stanley Tucci). The discovery prompts a late-night/early-morning emergency meeting that leads to the fateful decision to save the firm by essentially selling back and unloading all their investments and positions back onto their unwitting customers and clients before the meltdown occurs and they’re found out. (Investment bank Goldman Sachs similarly moved early to reduce its position in mortgage-backed securities, which triggered the great recession of 2008.)

The film itself feels like a taut suspenseful thriller. At first, this might sound like hyperbole since the movie itself consists of talking heads (in fact, the film feels like it could be produced as a stage play), until one remembers that ordinary people’s very livelihoods and futures throughout the country and around the world were very much impacted by the over-exposure to risky investments and their collapse.

Nevertheless, while the film gives enough information to viewers to understand what is happening, it focuses on the people and their varying degree of culpability and sense of responsibility/conscience of what is occurring. It does seem to suggest that the higher up you are in the chain, the more entitled and less responsible you feel—but make no mistake, these are indeed the so-called “Masters of the Universe,” as portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s book about Wall Street, The Bonfire of the Vanities. It helps to have a topnotch cast; in addition to Quinto and Tucci, the film also features Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore.

The cast is equally excellent all around, but Irons as the somewhat amoral head of the company is particularly delicious in a relatively small role—underscoring how complex and inscrutable high finance can be even to the people running the companies, at one point asking that the problem be explained to him as simply as possible: “Speak to me as you would a two-year old or a golden retriever.”

I always enjoy such these financial drama, though they vary widely in quality. I count Margin Call and 2015’s the Big Short among the very best of these (one could also include the influential Glengarry Glen Ross here, though the financial shenanigans there are more incidental to the plot rather than the centerpiece). Wall Street, the Boiler Room, and Too Big to Fail are additional films in this category that are less successful. Wall Street certainly hit the zeitgeist of the time, and while it's a great time capsule of the ‘80s financial world, I don’t feel it’s aged well.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

More Capsule Reviews in the Time of Corona (3)

Following the cancellation of the San Diego Comic-Con earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner Brothers (WB), the owner of DC Comics, announced DC FanDome, an entertainment and comic-book convention that would be held virtually on Saturday, August 22, and not participate at Comic-Con@Home, the virtual version of this year’s Comic-Con. 

Though the event was vaguely on my radar, I didn’t make a point of noting the date on my calendar. The morning of the convention, however, I got a text from my brother reminding me of the event. My family and I ended up turning it on and streamed it through YouTube all day, watching more of it than we expected (it helped, of course, that like many across the country, we were sheltering at home).

What was a bit awkward about the timing of Fandome was the announcement the week before of massive layoffs and restructuring at Warner Brothers that reached down deep into DC Comics as well. Several senior and longtime staff at DC were let go, though DC chief executive Jim Lee remained among the last people standing as DC Chief Creative Officer/Publisher. (Indeed, on a panel about the Multiverse of DC’s head honchos that included Lee, President of DC Films Walter Hamada and showrunner Greg Berlanti, who oversees DC Comics’ TV shows on the CW, it was clear that all decisions related to the direction of any DC characters were run through Lee.)

That aside, for the most part, the event was engaging and entertaining. Like regular Comic-Con, there was something for everyone, including gamers, fans of the DC Comics superhero films and, hey, even comics! And, as noted on the above panel, there was a very evident focus on developing an international audience—indeed, many of the hosts and fan questions were from overseas.

The main anchors of the virtual event were clearly the upcoming Wonder Woman, Snyder Cut Justice League, Suicide Squad and Batman films, along with coverage of TV shows like the Flash, and upcoming video games. There were brief bits on the Flash television show, highlights of fan art, an announcement about the return of DC imprint Milestone, one of the first comics companies founded by African-American cartoonists, and like a normal comics convention, even a “portfolio review”!

FanDome was held as a continuous, single stream, with “panels” following each other successively on a schedule during a 24-hour period, with the content taken down soon after.

In contrast, Comic-Con@Home, San Diego Comic-Con’s 2020 edition, like the regular Comic-Con, ran a gamut of panels concurrently and have kept the content online. While Comic-Con@Home received good-to-mixed reviews, it’s not really a fair comparison: while Comic-Con@@Home depended on a wide variety of people and companies to provide content, WB of course had more control over the content, execution and production, and presented it as a single stream, all in support of a single message and brand. (I presume it was also cheaper to mount.)

While it’s possible WB has developed a model that other conventions may want to emulate going forward, that doesn’t necessarily mean the traditional in-person convention is suddenly obsolete. Perhaps the main advantage of the virtual convention is the egalitarian nature of it--open to all, to anyone around the world. But, of course, it doesn’t beat the advantages of being able to interact directly with fans in person. It’s clear WB is partly following the model Disney has created with its D23 conventions, which has resulted in Disney partly pulling back on its presence at Comic-Con, I’m not sure WB and its DC FanDome would have the same reach and impact. No doubt they’re assessing though.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Rob Hanes Adventures #21 Now Available!

Fresh from its debut at Comic-Con@Home —the safe-at-home edition of the 2020 San Diego Comic-ConRob Hanes Adventures #21 is now available! To purchase, visit our webstore for this and all back issues and trade paperback collections! (Or get the entire series for a great price!) 

In his newest adventure, Rob is dropped inside a foreign enemy state to spirit out of the country a defector and a rogue nuclear scientist. Along the way, he discovers, in a comic case of mistaken identity, that another employee from his espionage and security agency, Justice International, who shares the same name and works as a mall security guard in middle America, has been kidnapped and taken prisoner inside the country, turning Rob's mission into a rescue operation as well! Fans of international intrigue and non-stop action won’t be disappointed! 

I’m also pleased to report that start has begun on issue #22—it’s bound to be a memorable one, reaching back to World War II and featuring characters I created many years ago but am introducing into the “Rob Hanes Universe” for the first time!

Monday, July 27, 2020

Report on Comic-Con@Home (SDCC 2020)

When the 2020 San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) was cancelled in mid-April, it was a disappointment for many but a surprise to few—health and safety, of course, comes first, and the state and local officials likely would not have it allowed it to be held anyway; many other large events, including WonderCon, usually held in the Spring and also organized by Comic-Con, similarly were cancelled. Like many, I had purchased a table, paid a deposit at my hotel, and had badges.

Shortly after the cancellation, Comic-Con announced SDCC 2020 would be a virtual event, open to all—Comic-Con@Home to be held on the same dates, July 23–26. There would be online panels and even a virtual exhibit hall online where confirmed exhibitors like myself would have a space!

Comic-Con@Home has now come and gone. Though I didn’t expect to have much to report regarding a cancelled event, I have to say that like the “real” Comic-Con, it was whatever you made of it, with online programming and mainstream coverage of the event. They even provided badges and signs that could be downloaded to make it as fun and “real” a Comic-Con experience as you wanted to make it. The traditional program was available for download as a PDF and they rolled out their programming for the event in advance like any other year, including the Eisner Awards and the Masquerade Ball. (All the panels—including the Eisner announcements—were pre-taped.)

As an exhibitor, I had a “table” in the virtual exhibition hall, which allowed exhibitors to promote products and exclusives, and link back to your website. As usual, I had a new issue available for sale at Comic-Con: Rob Hanes Adventures #21. You would have had to drill pretty far down to find me, and that's if you were looking—however, being active and promoting on social media made a big difference, and sales were way better than expected and a pleasant surprise. (You can see I re-posted some of my Tweets on my blog below.)

So though I did not have to be “on” 24/7, I was relatively active during the show posting on social media and watched panels throughout the weekend at my leisure—I also mixed things up by using Comic-Con as an opportunity to post photos from past shows of cosplay, the year I received the Inkpot, etc. (Though the panels dropped as scheduled on Comic-Con’s YouTube channel, they remain available for viewing.) To be honest, although it's only an annual event, it was nice to have the break and not have to be "on" 24/7. So, again, though Comic-Con did a great job of making it an inclusive celebration, of course it’s not the same as capturing the excitement and enthusiasm (and exhaustion) of the show IRL.

Some of the panels I “attended” include:
  • Public Domain Comics: From Sherlock Holmes to Mickey Mouse & Beyond 
  • Full Time Creative Work On A Part Time Schedule 
  • Cartoon Voices 
  • Celebrating 80 Years of Will Eisner's The Spirit 
  • Fantagraphics and IDW: Classic Comics Reprints 
  • 32nd Annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards 
  • Bill and Ted Face the Music 
  • The Brave New World of TwoMorrows 
  • Oddball Comics Not So Live! 
As a confirmed exhibitor for 2020, I’m already confirmed as an exhibitor in 2021—let’s hope it happens and see you there!

My brother, who helps me year every year at my booth, created the exhibitor badges featured below for this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, courtesy of a template provided at the Comic-Con website so that people could still have the Comic-Con experience at home!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Marking the end of Comic-Con@Home (2020)

Day 4 of Comic-Con@Home

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Day 3 of Comic-Con@Home