Saturday, September 14, 2019

Meeting Neal Adams

Absolutely one of the greatest and most respected comic-book artists of all time is Neal Adams. Anyone familiar with comics and its history will know him—if not, a quick introduction…

(I’ve previously written about him on my blog here, regarding 1978’s Superman versus Muhammad Ali comic-book. Though I intended to bring my copy, pictured at right, to the event for him to sign, I forgot it at home! When I first walked in and introduced myself, I mentioned this to him—we both laughed and I told him, “Next time!")

Adams is a pivotal figure in the industry, in that he was one of the artists who pulled comics into the modern era. He came into the industry at the perfect time, when radical change was needed. A shift had already begun in the early 1960s, with the debuts of the Fantastic Four at Marvel Comics and the modern-day version of the Flash at DC. Prior to that, comics had been in a period of doldrums—while remembered fondly by many (some feel it’s time for the pendulum to swing back), with some exceptions, comics generally had become too safe, fantastical and, in some cases, even silly. This was in large part due to the scare the industry had gone through during the early 1950s, following complaints (and Senate hearings) that comics had become too violent and inappropriate for children, and a cause of juvenile delinquency.

With these shifting winds, Adams came in and heralded a more mature, polished, more “photorealistic” style that readers didn’t realize they were yearning for, honed by his experience in advertising and newspaper strips (Ben Casey). While Adams is known for a diverse body of work, his influence is probably best defined by his sophisticated take of the Batman. Up to that time, the character was still in fantasy/children’s comics mode, a stereotype that for better or worse was further cemented in the public mind by the Adam West Batman TV show. Adams (and the writers he worked with) completely redefined Batman for the new age, with more realistic adventures and (for the time) more mature themes. While not quite the completely tortured, dark detective the character’s become in today's comics and films, his Batman was certainly the first step in that more complex direction.

Adams also was an early vocal advocate of artists' rights. He was among the first proponents for a union and was instrumental (along with fellow cartoonist Jerry Robinson) in getting recognition and a pension for the creators of Superman, Jerry Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who were both living in poverty when the Christopher Reeve Superman film hit theaters in 1979. Adams and Robinson shrewdly used the film's release as leverage to shame Warner Brothers, the parent company of DC Comics, into doing the right thing.

So of course you can imagine what a thrill it was to see and meet Adams at an event organized by local L.A. area cartoonists, at Adams’ new comic-book store, the Crusty Bunkers, in a building that also has served as the home office for his Continuity Studios West. Adams’ studio over the years has been involved in comics, advertising and animation; as those activities have wound down in recent years, Adams decided to open a comic book store/boutique in the space.

While I’ve briefly met Adams as a fan at conventions, this is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to meet him in a professional manner or setting. For this evening, Adams was the featured guest, graciously hosting the group at his new store. He talked shop with fellow professionals, fielded questions and regaled us with engaging and often hilarious stories and anecdotes from his career, often involving many well known comics industry giants he’s worked with over his storied career. Some of these stories have been told in interviews, and others are not for me to share, but Adams was always engaging and entertaining, and candid about himself and others.

As alluded above, Adams first tried to break into the industry at a moment of transition in the industry when everyone told him that the business “would be dead in a year.” He talked about wanting to break into comics while even in high school, where even his teachers (one of whom was a professional cartoonist) discouraged him.

Because of these "lost years," as he and others have noted, at one point when he started in the business, everyone was either five years older or five years younger than him, making him a bridge of sorts between the old guard of cartoonists and industry professionals and the new guard.

As a result, Adams had plenty of funny and juicy stories (and opinions) about comics pros who loom large in the history of comics, such as Mort Weisenger, Julius Schwartz, Robert Kanigher, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Frank Frazetta, and Stan Lee, as well as his contemporaries and some of the cartoonists who have followed, like Archie Goodwin, Murphy Anderson, Wendy Pini, and Dave Sim. He particularly had kind words about Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, acknowledging and talking about their role in revitalizing the industry in the early 1960s.

Above all, Adams is a student of the medium who appreciates those who came before him “on whose shoulders the industry was built.” Here he was not just referring to cartoonists but also great illustrators and artists like Alphonse Mucha and Norman Rockwell, noting that there would always be a section in his store where books about the great artists would always be available to be appreciated and remembered.

Though Adams could have kept going with a willing and captive audience, the evening eventually came to a natural conclusion—ever the gracious host, he invited people to take photos with him. This gave me a few moments to speak a little more with him. He was extremely kind and generous with his time, and clearly enjoyed being among fans and fellow professionals.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

35th Anniversary Screening of Electric Dreams

On Saturday, September 7, I had the good fortune to catch a 35th anniversary screening of an obscure 1980s' romantic comedy called Electric Dreams (1984). It was held at a small arthouse theater in Santa Ana, California, the Frida Cinema, about 35 miles from my home in West L.A., in Orange County. Appearing at the screening were the film’s leads—Virginia Madsen and Lenny von Dohlen—as well as the screenwriter, Rusty Lemorande. When I say obscure, I’m not kidding, as the film has never been released on DVD in the U.S. and was only in theaters for two weeks (more on that below).

The film was followed by a Q&A with Madsen, von Dohlen and Lemorande, and then a signing.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I have a special fondness for Electric Dreams, which was the film debut for Madsen and von Dohlen. Though the film did well internationally, it was in theaters in the U.S. only briefly. The film developed a cult following shortly afterwards, thanks apparently to repeated showings on HBO. Its reputation as a hard-to-find film has been boosted by its lack of availability on DVD in the U.S., though it is available overseas. A low-quality version is available on YouTube and I owned it on VHS for many years before burning it onto a DVD (by then, the VHS print had also faded badly).

Set in San Francisco, the film is a romantic comedy featuring a love triangle between a boy, a girl and his computer—Miles is a young, awkward architect who, at the dawn of the desktop computer revolution, purchases a computer to help him with his research on an earthquake-resistant brick, and Madeline is a cellist with a local symphony orchestra. Shortly after the beginning of the story, Madeline moves into the apartment above Miles and the two soon strike up a relationship. However, after a series of mishaps, the computer becomes sentient and falls in love with Madeline through her music. Jealous of Miles, the computer (who we find out later has named himself Edgar) tries to get Miles out of the picture by taking over his life by ruining his credit, putting him on a most wanted list, and trapping him in the house. (Edgar was voiced by actor Bud Cort, who reportedly did his lines on set in a box so that the actors wouldn’t have to interact with a “real” person—the organizers of the show said they did make an attempt to get Cort to come to make an appearance as well.)

As I have mentioned in my own review—and as the actors discussed on stage during the Q&A—the film was a little ahead of its time in demonstrating the threat to privacy and the vulnerability of personal information in our web-connected world. That said, the film is at its heart a romantic comedy not a cautionary tale—a modern-day re-telling of Cyrano Debergerac, with Miles taking credit for music composed by the computer. So the dangers of having our information online is really only a minor side note to the film and played mostly for laughs, adding just a bit of tension and conflict to the final act of the story.

Before the screening started, two members of the film’s programming staff came out to introduce the film—it turned out both were fans of the movie and, based on this shared love, decided on this anniversary celebration. They then brought out Madsen onto the stage, who expressed being touched by the turnout.

At the start of the Q&A that followed, Lemorande and the actors first spoke about their experiences on the film. For Madsen and von Dohlen, because it was their first film project, they bonded closely and have maintained a close friendship over the years, which was clear in their interactions with each other. (The film was actually shot in England, though the exterior shots were filmed on location in San Francisco, where the film takes place). In addition to citing Cyrano as an inspiration, Lemorande also shared some behind-the-scenes information that was new to even the actors.

First, after asking the audience who first saw the film in the theater—only about a third had (as had I)—he said those of us who did were lucky because it was in theaters for only two weeks. He noted in those days films were given time to find an audience, mentioning it took 9 weeks for the popular comedy Caddyshack to catch on. Apparently, the head of MGM, which held the film’s North American distribution rights, pulled Electric Dreams from theaters to give time for the soundtrack (which featured Jeff Lynne and Boy George/Culture Club, who was huge at the time), to make the charts—the plan was to then re-release the film to theaters on the strength of the soundtrack. A week after the film was pulled, however, the head of MGM was fired, effectively killing the plan and the film’s prospects.

During the Q&A, Lemorande also gave full credit to the two leads for their fine work—indeed, the performances and chemistry of the two leads really are the heart of the film. In response to a question from the audience, Madsen said the two had never met before the first day of shooting and there had been no rehearsals; she did mention, however, that the location shooting in San Francisco did give them a chance to bond before the production moved to England. (Lemorande mentioned that one of the first scenes shot for the movie was the last scene, which he said would be done today, but the leads pulled it off wonderfully.)

One of the moderators also noted how progressive and self-possessed a character Madeline is, which was also a bit ahead of its time—rather than Miles being an aggressive suitor, she is the one trying to send Miles signals of her interest, while at the same time also dating a fellow musician.

One other funny tidbit – Bud Cort, who did the voice of the computer, didn't record his lines in post, he did them on set, but from within a box so that the other actors wouldn't be thrown by interacting with a live actor. Both actors thought that was strange but since this was their first film, they didn't question it (von Dohlen said he saw him once on set by accident.) Ironically, the theater’s lobby has a collage of characters from classic movies -- and Bud Cort is on there from Harold and Maude!)

Lemorande also noted that since Virgin Pictures was producing the film, they insisted that only Virgin artists be on the soundtrack. (This is also why the movie was shot in England—though, of course, the exterior shots were done on location in San Francisco, prior to moving the production overseas.)

Though the film is available overseas in digital format, complicated U.S. distribution rights have delayed the film’s availability on DVD/Bluray in the U.S., though Lemorande said he expected them to be sorted out soon (given how long it’s been, I’ll believe it when I see it!)

In any case, it was a lovely evening where the actors and screenwriter got to feel the love from an appreciative audience. After the Q&A, the three went into the main lobby for a signing. Though I had forgotten to bring my VHS copy of the film for them to autograph, the theater had mini-posters on hand for this very reason.