About Charles

I'm a graphic artist and the author of novels such as "Fourfold"

Jack Chalker’s Well World Books

The Well World books are . . . different.  Jack Chalker was an oddball writer.  Not a bad writer, but an odd one.  All of his books had an overriding theme: bodily change.  Well World is probably the ultimate example of this.

The basic theme of Well World goes thusly: an ancient progenitor race (The Markovians) created another universe–“our” universe.  They reached a “dead end” in their own universe and wanted to create a new one.  Within the new universe, they wished to have a race which would supersede their own.  To help implement this, they created the Well World.  It’s an artificial world consisting of 1560 “hexes”, each with their own environment.  Within said hexes were 1560 different artificial races.  Essentially, Well World is a giant laboratory for the Markovians to perfect their inheritors.

Humans (and other races) from “our” universe can get into Well World through teleportation gateways.  Once within, however, the only way to get out of the entry point is by teleporting into one of the hexes.  When you do, the Markovian super-computer turns you into one of the natives of the hex.

Moreover, every hex has its own physical rules.  Some have high technology, others have moderate and others have none.  The computer controls the physics within each hex.  Some are so odd that they have “magic” or something resembling it.  The hexes in the southern hemisphere are all carbon-based, oxygen breathing types.  The hexes in the northern hemisphere are so alien that they are separated from the southern hex by a giant equatorial wall.  The wall is also where one may access the computer.  The wildly different environments makes both travel and conquest hard–although not impossible.

Why the hell would you want to go to Well World, you ask?  Within the stories there are plenty of reasons.  One of the primary ones is that if you can gain access to the Well World computer, you can literally reshape reality.  In fact, once during the series the entire universe is “rebooted”!

If that sounds weird–you’re correct.  It’s really weird.  However, it’s not as unreachable as it sounds.  Chalker manages to personalize even the weirdest characters and makes even the oddest scenarios palatable.  The series has the highest technological level I’ve ever seen, but he keeps the stories and characters approachable.

The series takes place over a vast expanse of time.  And I do mean vast.  Epochs.  The only recurring characters are Nathan Brazil and Mavra Chang, who are essentially immortal. The rest consist of a rotating cast of characters.

Chalker’s penchant for reshaping characters like clay is in full flower here.  He warps, twists and reshapes everyone.  No one is safe.  Sexes change.  Species change.  Universes change.  You go from human to centaur to sentient plant and so forth.  Also, minds get altered, enhanced and enslaved.  I can’t recall any Chalker book where this does not take place.  In Well World it’s an absolute staple.

The staggering scope of the setting and some of the ennui which crops up can be a little overwhelming from time to time, but I would still heartily recommend these books.

The Berserker Stories

The late, great Fred Saberhagen created a series of stories and books about a race of genocidal machines called “Berserkers”.  These machines were named so after the Norse Berserker warriors, although they are even more terrifying.

As the lore goes, an ancient race known only as The Builders created a fleet of robotic ships to destroy their enemies.  After they annihilated their enemies, they decided that all life was their enemy.  It was a fatal mistake for The Builders as their creations wiped them out as well as their enemies.  The Berserkers didn’t stop there.  They created more ships and scoured life from the universe wherever they traveled.

This idea intrigued me the moment I read the first Berserker (1967) book.  The concept of gigantic, genocidal robot ships is darkly compelling.  Look at all the popular icons which followed in popular fiction.  For example we have: The Terminator, Cybermen, Cylons or even Ultron.  I’ll even give it to the Decepticons.  Hell, if we go back to 1967 we have the classic Star Trek episode of “The Doomsday Machine”.  That episode has Berserker written all over it (with apologies to Norman Spinrad.)  Dozens of other, less-known antagonists of a similar type abound in science fiction fandom.

Despite having terrifying fleets of giant death machines, very little combat is written in the Berserker stories.  Most of the big combats happen “off screen”.  Fred (and other writers) concentrated on outwitting the Berserkers, instead of out-fighting them.  Part of the lore is that the brute force approach failed when humanity defeated the main Berserker fleet.  After that the Berserkers worked in subtle and devious fashions.  They manufactured humanoid robots to infiltrate and/or assassinate (Terminator, anyone?)  To push the Terminator analogy further, Brother Assassin is all about Berserkers time traveling in attempts to destroy humanity.

For some reason the Berserker series started my love affair with robot/AI ships.  You would think they would scare the shit out of me, but instead they tickle my fancy.  I’m not sure I can coherently explain my fascination.  Perhaps it’s a power fantasy run amok.  Maybe I like gadgets–even if they want to kill me.  It might even be the scope of the threat/promise.  I never claimed to be rational.

I will say that Saberhagen had a way of firing up my imagination for worlds and gadgetry.  He did have a flaw, however–characters.  I can’t remember any of his characters in any meaningful way.  This is not merely with his Berserker books.  Many younger readers are probably familiar with his Books of Swords.  They were jam-packed with interesting backgrounds, worlds, gadgets and critters.  The characters?  Not so much.  In fact, one might argue that the most interesting characters in those books are the swords.  No sarcasm intended.  Go read them.

That’s enough, though.  With villains as awesome as Berserkers, you can sit back and coast.  The concepts are the big draw.  And draw they do.

I would consider the concept broad and deep enough to make a decent television series.  It would require a careful touch to not make it too much like more well-known fiendish robot enemies, but it could work.  I’d love to see it given as much respect as other older franchises.

 

 

 

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Why I Hate Independence Day

Most people seem to love the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day.  I am not one of those people.  I can’t stand it.  I’m also not a fan of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, who crafted this “masterpiece”.

When I started this blog, I wanted to concentrate on things I actually liked.  Many friends complain to me that “I hate everything”.  So I figured I’d go with a positive vibe.  However, I have come to realize that occasionally I need to clear the air about my hates.  So I’ll start with a big one.  This damn movie.

The first time I watched this movie (in the theater) I didn’t think it was awful. It wasn’t that impressive, but I just shrugged.  I watched it on the Fourth of July with a bunch of friends in a jovial atmosphere.  Many months later, I noticed it playing on cable late night and thought “what the hell, let’s give it a second watch”.  It was only this time, as I watched it without the hype and the group of friends I had seen it with the first time, that I realized just how awful it is.  I remember thinking: “Jesus!  Was this really this bad before?”

Here is why.

Technical Stupidity

Let’s start with the easy stuff–the technical flaws.

We’re here with evidence that will lead to the arrest of Hillary Clinton.

Okay, first we get this super-advanced alien race coming to Earth to conquer it in mile-long spaceships.  They’ve mastered anti-gravity, force fields and projected energy weapons.  Apparently, however, they haven’t figured out satellites, because they didn’t bring any of their own.  They have to use terrestrial satellites to coordinate their attack.  Sure, apparently they have thousands of smaller craft they could use for this, but instead want to use Earth satellites because . . . reasons?  Apparently so the plucky Earth scientists could figure out what you were doing.

Second, if you have this level of technology and all you want to do is level the planetary civilization, why enter the atmosphere?  Hell, why exert yourself at all?  Drop a few hundred small asteroids and watch the fireworks.  Easy as pie.  You don’t even have to look at those pesky Earth vermin.

Third, if you have a force field which can withstand a hydrogen bomb, why would you need to send out a bunch of fighters to deal with primitive Earth fighters, armed with lesser weapons?  Just ignore them.  Seriously.  This is like an aircraft carrier flying a sortie with fighters because pelicans are smacking into the side of the ship.

I should punch out Iron Man now! I am GOOD!

Fourth, if you have a force field around your smaller ships which is apparently just as impervious as the one around the big ship, why would running into the ground damage it?

Fifth, if you have an alien with an exoskeleton battle suit, how does Will Smith knock it out with a punch?

Sixth, hacking an alien computer language in a day with a Mac?  Really? 

The Character Void

Now we come to the harder stuff.  Characters.  Or lack thereof. 

Don’t worry, honey. Mom will die, but she’ll die to give this movie the illusion of depth.

This movie has the emotional depth of a puddle.  There is absolutely nothing beyond the surface.  Nothing.  Zero, zip, Nada. I’ve seen public service announcements with more gravitas.

The aliens blow up cities in a dramatic fashion, killing millions.  At what point do we see flash-burned survivors digging through rubble, trying to find their loved ones?  People succumbing to despair and perhaps committing suicide?  Genuine horror and shock?  The only inkling of real emotion is when the First Lady croaks.  That’s it.

Millions of incinerated people almost makes us mad. Or sad. Something.

When the pilots get ready to attack after cities have been incinerated, do they pray, scream to heaven, panic, etc.?  Any of them?  No, it’s “Let’s light the fires and kick the tires!” to go kick alien butt!  Wee-hoo!  Everybody reacts like this is just a minor thing.  Compare this with the 2011 Battle Los Angeles reactions from the Marines.  They’re all obviously scared and confused, but go out to face the enemy anyway.  That movie has flaws and cliches, but at least I actually believed the emotions of the characters.  I could identify with them.  They felt real.

In Independence Day, I might as well have been watching robots. 

Don’t get wrong, there are some decent actors in the movie.  Will Smith does his best with what he’s given, but it’s thin and he’s not a wizard.  I also doubt he minded much, since this movie catapulted him to super-stardom, but you’ll notice he wisely declined to participate in the sequel.

Take that, Star Whackers!

Nobody reacts like people.  They react like animated cut-outs that superficially resemble people.  It’s actually a little creepy.  Remember when Randy (“I’ve gone crazy”) Quaid suicides into the ship?  His son witnesses this.  His son, who finally discovers his father isn’t crazy and was right for years, so now he has a chance to reconnect with him.  How does he react to this ironic tragedy?  He says something to the effect of how proud he is of him and he smiles.  Are you kidding me?!  How about some tears?  Deep regret?  Something?!

I hope you gentlemen are here to extract me from this shitty movie.

And finally, the aliens.  They’re a complete blank slate other than “We’re bad and we want to kill you”.  Nothing that wrong with a cryptic enemy if that fits.  Unfortunately, it usually fits with a grim or horrific motif.  Independence Day isn’t trying to be grim . . . I think.  I honestly don’t know what kind of tone they were shooting for.  Some kind of depth of motivation would have helped with the aliens.  Something.  Anything to flesh them out or make them interesting.  But we got nothing.

There are a few other annoying details, but they’re minor.  This covers the main, hideous flaws.  This movie was the beginning of my hatred for Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (or as I like to call them, the “Twins of Satan”) but their rape of Godzilla (1998) was the last time I paid a penny to see their abominations.  (shudders)

Battle Beyond the Stars: A Forgotten Gem

 

Battle Beyond the Stars came out in 1980, riding the coattails of Star Wars.  Every studio was scrambling to find an equivalent franchise after SW hit the movie scene like a nuclear bomb.  Roger Corman, the king of low-budget schlock, slapped together this movie in short order.

The results were . . . surprisingly, not too bad.  Subtle?  Not so much.

Battle is essentially a remake of The Magnificent Seven in space.  Seven was also a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai.  So it’s a remake of a remake.  Which sounds terrible, but the initial premise is still strong and Battle has decent actors and production values.

A wholesome couple and their android.

The setting is the far future planet Akir.  Akir is inhabited by peace-loving space Amish . . . or something.  Anyway, the Akira (a nod to Akira Kurosawa) get a visit from an unpleasant character called Sador.  (Yes, Sador.  A subtle name.)  Sador (John Saxon) packs a giant battleship, an army of mutants and a “stellar converter” that can blow up planets.  Not having an army or experience in fighting, they send out Shad (Richard Thomas) to look for help.  Richard at this point had just come off playing “John-Boy” on The Waltons for five years.  I suspect he was attempting to find any role that would break out of that typecasting.

See? Boobs.

Shad flies off in an intelligent ship with a sarcastic personality named Nell.  And the ship has boobs.  Seriously, the ship is stacked.  Through various encounters, Shad manages to dig up a group of fighters who are willing to defend Akir.

He loves it when a plan comes together.

First is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) who doesn’t bring any weapons except a battle computer, however she is Shad’s love interest.  Second is Space Cowboy.  Yes, his name is Space Cowboy.  Did I mention this film isn’t subtle?  Space Cowboy (George Peppard) doesn’t have much of a ship, but has plenty of ground weapons to fend off troops. 

Typical college life these days.

Nestor, a group-mind of clones, volunteer for the fight because they’re bored with their sameness.  Next comes Gelt (Robert Vaughn), an assassin whose success has made him too many enemies.  All he wants is a place to live peacefully, without watching his back.  Vaughn essentially plays the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, only with a spaceship. 

Next is Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning) from the race of Valkyries.  She shows up in a tiny, super-fast ship and wants to fight because she comes from a warrior race and loves it.  For you younger folks, Sybil was the go-to sexpot in every B film in the 80s.  She’s wonderful eye candy in this.

She can carry my spear. Rowwr!

Finally we get a lizard alien named Cayman (Morgan Woodward).  Yes, he’s named Cayman.  Just let it go.  Cayman has a massive warship and wants to fight because Sador destroyed his race.  Although unrecognizable in his makeup, you might know Woodward from Cool Hand Luke, and two appearances on the original Star Trek series.

The group of fighters meet Sador in battle and . . . well, you can guess how this goes if you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven. 

I enjoyed the hell out of it as a kid and when I rewatched it recently, it held up pretty well.  It doesn’t hurt that you have real actors and decent special effects (by none other than James Cameron).  The spaceship designs are nifty and John Sayles‘s script is damn solid.

I am eeeevil!

It has since become a bit of a cult favorite among aficionados.  It still pops up from time to time in pop culture references.  If you’ve ever played the classic PC game Master of Orion II, you’ll recognize the “stellar converter” technology reference.

If you like science fiction and have never seen this, I recommend it without reservation.

The whole movie’s available on YouTube.  You’re welcome.

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The Star Fox is Iron Man? A Poul Anderson Great.

The Star Fox (1964) is a favorite novel of mine from the late, great Poul Anderson.  Like a lot of Poul’s novels, there is a political undertone to it.  Poul wrote a lot of Libertarian themed fiction, like several of his contemporaries (such as Heinlein.)  This novel is both political and a precursor to today’s modern military science fiction.  After re-reading it again, however, I also realized that it was a kind of precursor to 2008’s Iron Man movie.

Basic setup is as follows:

It’s a far future space opera setting.  Earth has expanded its domain outward and put out colonies.  During this expansion they’ve come upon a militaristic and expansionist alien empire called the Aleriona.  After an ‘accidental’ attack on the human colony of New Europe, the Aleriona make peace overtones.  Everyone on New Europe is supposedly dead, so the war-wary human government doesn’t push the Aleriona claim to New Europe.

Bow before my awesomeness!

Enter the protagonist Gunnar Heim.  He’s a wealthy industrialist and navy veteran who thinks the peace talks with the Aleriona are a smoke screen for them to consolidate their position.  Then along comes a survivor of New Europe who swears there are still millions of survivors on New Europe.  When he goes to the Earth government, he isn’t believed.  Turns out the government doesn’t want to know of survivors, as it would derail the peace process.

Less military discipline is needed by privateers.

Through clever maneuvering, Gunnar manages to get a Letter of Marque from the French government, who despise the peace talks.  (Yes.  The French want war.  It’s fiction.) Through his massive fortune, Gunnar gets a battleship outfitted and crewed to wage a guerilla war against the Aleriona blockading New Europe.  Most of the book (originally three stories) details Gunnar’s escape from Earth authorities and his journey to acquire, equip and arm his ship, the Fox II to become a raider.  Most of his opposition from the Earth government and the ironically named “World Militants for Peace”.

I’ve read the book several times, but only recently did I get the parallel between it and Iron Man.  In both cases, a wealthy industrialist sees injustice done and takes it upon himself to take up arms against the guilty when his government fails.  The difference being that guilt motivates Tony Stark by the use of his weapons to harm the innocent.  In The Star Fox, Gunnar is motivated because he can see that the Earth government’s pacifism will allow the Aleriona to push Earth until resistance is untenable.  The temporary peace is bought at the cost of millions of innocent colonists.

Don’t let me repulse you.

Both have strong Libertarian undertones and a spirit of individualism which endear them to me.  Might be why I enjoy hearing of the Flying Tigers in pre-WW2 China.  The only sour note is that Poul meant this as his statement on America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Namely, his fear that the communists wouldn’t stop at Vietnam.  In hindsight, maybe not the neatest allegory.  The story in Iron Man is bit tighter and more ideologically ‘pure’.  Plus, it has Robert Downey Jr. playing my favorite comic character of all time.

Still, it’s a solid, enjoyable novel.  Check it out.

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Dahak Series: A Grand Concept

The first of David Weber’s Dahak Series, Mutineers Moon, came out in 1992, preceding his lucrative Honor Harrington books by a year.  The series consists of a mere three books, but they’re not bad.  Tightly written with a grandiose and outrageous idea.  I enjoyed the hell out of them.

In this setting, Earth’s moon isn’t a moon–it’s a ship.  A gigantic, intelligent warship with an AI named “Dahak”.  Dahak is a ship of an ancient galactic empire (The “Fourth Imperium”) and has been orbiting the Earth disguised as a moon for 50,000 years.  It turns out the entire population of Earth are descendants of the crew of Dahak.  An ancient mutiny happened and both the loyal crew and mutineers escaped to Earth, where the outnumbered loyalists were hunted and killed.  The ship was sabotaged and couldn’t stop the mutineers or aid the loyalists.  It took many decades to repair the damage, and by then all the loyalists were dead or unable to contact Dahak.  With conflicting sets of priorities in its last orders, Dahak disguises itself as a moon and waits.  For fifty thousand years.

Wild enough?  There’s more.

The mutineers reduce the surviving loyalists to the Stone Age.  They lose knowledge of their origins and begin the long climb back to civilization.  Essentially, the entire history of mankind comes from cosmic castaways.  The story begins at a near-future point where Lieutenant Commander Colin MacIntyre flies a spacecraft around the moon to map the far side.  When he goes out of radio contact, Dahak sends out remote ships to capture him and fake his death.  Using twisty logic, Dahak declares that the indigenous life of Earth are considered the descendants of the loyalists.  Therefore, he puts Colin in command of the moon-sized ship.

From there it’s discovered that many of the original mutineers are still alive.  After the mutiny, there was a schism between the mutineers.  One group was fine with the status quo and the other regretted the decision.  They’ve been secretly warring with one another throughout human history.  The original mutineers are led by Engineering Chief Anu and the rebels are led by Missile Tech Horus.  Whole mythologies sprung up around the conflict.

Anu’s people dwell beneath Antarctica, protected by a force shield so powerful that it would take Dahak’s main guns to punch through.  This, however would destroy most of the life on Earth.  Ergo, Dahak cannot act.  Colin and the rebels have to figure out how to take them down without Dahak’s direct help.

That’s right people.  We’ve got an Ancient Alien Conspiracy.  Moon sized ships.  Godlike alien infiltrators.  A goddamn Antarctic base!  Oh yeah, baby!

But wait!  There’s more.  The original purpose of Dahak and ships like it was to fight off a fleet of extra-galactic extermination ships.  The fleet periodically reappears every few millennia and destroys all technological civilizations.  And they’re about due to pay another visit. And that’s just the beginning of the story!  The original books were Mutineers Moon, The Armageddon Inheritance and Heirs of Empire.  All of the books are collected in the compilation Empire from the Ashes.

World-smashing ships!  Alien supermen!  Cosmic mysteries!  Invading fleets!  Dead empires!  Ravening beams of force! This is basically a homage to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman books.  I don’t say that as criticism.  Smith would have loved these books.  I know I did.

Weber’s later books become preachy and political.  Not these.  Lean, exciting stuff.  Go pick up a copy and enjoy.

My First Science Fiction Series: Flinx and Pip

The Flinx and Pip series by Alan Dean Foster appeared on my radar screen in the late seventies.  I was ushered into this series via Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Alien movie adaptation.  Before that my experience with science fiction had been movies and comic books.  Although my mom read War of the Worlds to me as a kid.  I only understood parts of it.  Yes, my mom read a turn-of-the-century H.G. Wells novel to me as a young nipper.  My mom is awesome.

Alan Dean Foster got a bad rep in the seventies and eighties because of all of his movie adaptations.  He did a lot of them.  I don’t criticize him, because I’m happy for any writer making good money.  Good for him.

Anyway, I saw his name on a book: The Tar-Aiym Krang.  That title just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  Still, I rather enjoyed it.  So I got the rest in the series: Orphan Star and The End of the Matter and Bloodhype.  Mind you, Bloodhype is an oddball entry in the series.  It was written second, but comes in . . . I’m not exactly sure where it fits in the chronology.  More on that later.

Basic premise of the series is nothing radically new.  Far future space civilization (The Commonwealth) with multiple worlds and alien civilizations.  The fun part is the dual civilizations of human and Thranx (which are mantis-like alien insects).  Foster sets up the framework for all his Commonwealth books in this series.  It’s a setting every bit as rich and interesting as anything created by Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson or Larry Niven.  (None of which I had read as a young teenager.)  It has lost alien civilizations, cosmic threats and alien artifacts.  Meat and drink to the science fiction or space opera genre.

The main character in this series is Flinx.  He’s a psionic orphan who grows up poor and becomes a thief and (sometime) con artist on the planet Moth (named because of wing-like rings).  His “sidekick” is a flying alien snake with deadly and acidic venom.  It’s also empathic and “links” with Flinx.

The unlikely duo runs into various adventures, usually because of Flinx’s precognitive flashes that lead him into strange situations.  He also later discovers that he was genetically engineered by a secretive group to give him his abilities.

The series continued after that, but the strongest ones were the first ones.  Bloodhype is the oddball one because Flinx and Pip are background characters, rather than the main ones.  It’s still a very good book, but go into it understanding that it’s only marginally a Flinx and Pip book.

This series was my introduction into reading science fiction and I don’t feel cheated.  Still good stuff and I still like Alan Dean Foster a lot.  Although his fantasy is a mixed bag at best.  His Spellsinger series is awful.  I did like Into the Out Of, but I’d call that horror.  I would strongly advise checking out his The Damned series.  It’s great.

Honestly, the Flinx and Pip series would make a great movie or television series.  It’s straightforward, but with plenty of room to expand a universe.

Go check out the series.

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Obscure Indie Film: The Deadly Spawn

The Deadly Spawn is an oddball sci-fi/horror movie from 1983.  I hadn’t seen it myself until just recently.  I’d seen the poster and a few stills, but that’s all.  Fortunately, we live in the age of the internet and YouTube, hence my ability to watch it.

First, I’d like to make sure you realize this is a ‘B’ movie.  The entire budget of this film was a grand total of $25,000.  Yes, you read that right.  Of course, this was in 1983 dollars, but . . . that’s a shoestring budget.  To give you an idea, note that Night of the Living Dead’s budget was $114,000 in 1968 dollars, and that was a tight budget.  And Night didn’t have much in the way of special effects aside from some makeup effects.

Ignore my phallic shape and kiss me.

Second, the late, great Tim Hildebrandt is one of the film’s producers.  Yes, that Tim Hildebrandt.  Lord of the friggin’ Rings Tim Hildebrandt of the Brothers Hildebrandt.of The brothers responsible for most of the LOTR artwork for a couple of decades, not to mention the original poster art for Star Wars.  (Also note that the youngest protagonist and science fiction fanboy in the movie is Charles George Hildebrandt–Tim’s son.)

The Brothers Hildebrandt also did the artwork for the Deadly Spawn movie poster.  Which is pretty damn cool.

Last time I go to that dermatologist.

The plot is straightforward and familiar to any science fiction or horror movie nerd.  A meteor falls in the woods and is discovered by a couple of campers. The toothy spawn from inside the meteor make a quick meal of said campers.  The spawn takes up residence in a rural house’s basement and proceeds to start eating the inhabitants and visitors.  It also releases multiple tiny spawn with oversized teeth and jaws.  The spawn do what evil alien spawn are supposed to do–they try to eat everything they find.

This little piggy went to the SLAUGHTER!

The gore is both graphic and solidly done, especially considering the minuscule budget available.  Interspersing the graphic effects are several cutaway scenes involving what I kind only assume was a squirt gun with stage blood.  The main creature has some nicely overdone dental appendages of sinister design.  It’s no man in a rubber suit.  It’s accomplished with puppetry effects and judicious use of dark lighting, cutaways and close-ups.

The acting?  All I can say is that for a college production, the acting is decent.  Not exactly Shakespearean, but this isn’t exactly Othello, either.  I will say the acting is better than most of the SyFy Channel’s cheese movies.  Which admittedly, isn’t hard.

Feed me, Seymour!

I could go into more plot details, but honestly, you know everything you need to know.  Alien spawn picking off victims.  Deadly game of cat and mouse.  Plucky young protagonist figures out the spawn’s weakness.  Deadly vegetarian food party.  Don’t go in the basement.

Party on.  Go check it out.  It’s available on YouTube for free.  Enjoy.

*- Please note, there is a quasi “sequel” called Deadly Spawn II or Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor.  Apparently it has little to do with the first movie.  I have never seen it.

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The Great Darkness Saga (A Forgotten DC Gem)

Unless you’re a comic book geek, you’re probably unfamiliar with the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Great Darkness Saga.  The LSH has been around for decades, but never got the exposure of the Justice League or Teen Titans.  Plus, with its roots deep in Silver Age lore, it has definitely had some goofy elements.  The team first appeared in Adventure Comics with Superboy, and was, well . . . corny.  Fun, but corny.  The LSH were a superhero group in the 30th century of the DC Universe, with members from every corner of the galaxy, and power levels varying wildly from Duo Damsel (who could turn into two women) to Mon-El (who could punch holes through planets.)

Not exactly Watchmen.

Anyway, years went by and comic buyers got a bit more sophisticated.  The Legion got its own title in the early seventies with a rotating roster of writers, including Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway and Roy ThomasDave Cockrum and Mike Grell did much of the penciling work and it typically looked pretty sharp.  Overall, it looked solid, but the stories tended to be the same, bland fare.  Not bad, but not outstanding, either.

Then in the early 1980s, Paul Levitz returned to the writing chores.  He brought with him the art team of Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt.  I loved this art team from the very beginning, and the story line took a sudden spike in sophistication and maturity.  It really kicked into high gear when Paul started The Great Darkness Saga.  It involved the appearance of the Jack Kirby uber-villain, Darkseid, in the far future.  He returns without and New Gods to stop him and does a respectable try at conquering the galaxy.

A couple of notes here.

First, for you younger folks, most comic companies weren’t in the habit of having big, apocalyptic, multi-part story lines at the time.  There were occasional long plot lines, but they were few and far between.  And rarely did anything of true substance happen, especially with DC Comics. Moreover, the general tone and plot lines tended to be fairly straightforward. 

Then along comes The Great Darkness.  For those of you who read it after it had been collected in a trade paperback, you’re actually missing a pretty big element of the series: mystery.  Levitz didn’t just come out and say: “Hey, here comes Darkseid!”  Nope.  Through most of it, you have no idea who this Big Bad is.  Sure, Levitz threw in lots of hints, but they weren’t super-obvious, especially if you didn’t know your New Gods lore.  You just knew that things were gettin’ real when the flunkies beat the crap out of the toughest Legionnaires with ease!

As the story progressed, you found out that the mysterious, inhuman bad guys were “unliving clones” (yes, I’m also not sure what the means–but it’s cool) of some of the most powerful members of the DC Universe, including Superman and a Guardian of OA.  They were badass.

Mordru had beaten the whole Legion before. This is a ‘spit take’ moment.

Then when the mysterious master showed up, he proceeded to stomp the Legion’s most powerful enemies with ease and steal their powers.  The stakes just kept going up and the Legion got beaten time and time again before they’d even seen the “master”.  I remember geeking out when I found out (although I had suspected) that the master was Darkseid.  The Big Reveal was sweet.  And Darkseid’s master plan was . . . well, one of the better ones I’ve seen a Evil Mastermind come up with.  When I saw it in action, my response was: “How in the hell are they going to win this?!”  Seriously.  Good plan.

I don’t want to spoil too many of the surprises.  I wish everyone could read this without knowing it was Darkseid.  So good.  I will say the virtually every hero who had every had an appearance in the LSH shows up–and the LSH is still outpowered a thousand-to-one.

Anyway, let me also rain down praise on the art team of Keith Giffen and Larry Mahstedt.  I had encountered Giffen before in the pages of Marvel’s Defenders, but he really comes into his own in this.  When he first started, he looked very much like a Jack Kirby clone (which, if you have to be a clone, isn’t too shabby) but he defines his own style in LSH.  I also must wonder how much of the plotting he helped with, as he’s a pretty good writer on his own.  I must confess I like this period in his artwork the best.  Later he did a much looser style that I liked, but it didn’t feel as good.  I do adore all of his Ambush Bug work, though. (For those who don’t know, Ambush Bug was Deadpool before there was a Deadpool.)

If DC wanted a property to do another animated adaptation of, they could do much worse than The Great Darkness Saga.

Go pick up a copy of the trade paperback and revel in the goodness.

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Movies That Need More Love: Real Steel

I love Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy.  I simply adore this movie.  It earned my love the first time I watched it and it has never diminished.  Just to let you know my bias.

Is it formulaic?  Oh yes.  Real Steel owes a great deal to the Rocky movies in its formula.  It’s a (very) loose adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story “Steel” which appeared on The Twilight Zone in 1963.  Elements of that story are still there, but mostly serves as the kernel of a new story entirely.  The TZ story was more serious and depressing.

Anyway, you’ve got Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) as a former boxer turned robot boxer promoter.  Backstory reveals that human boxing languished as robot boxing started, as mere humans couldn’t give the type of spectacle the fans wanted.  Charlie reconnects with his son Max (Dakota Goyo) after Max’s mother dies.  Charlie cynically sells away his rights to Max for enough money to continue robot boxing, only to lose again and again.  Part of the deal is that Max stays with Charlie over the summer.

Charlie gets more than he bargained for with Max, as he’s a robot boxing fan and knows more about robots than Charlie.  More than that, Charlie begins to care about his son as more than a moneymaking scheme.  He’s alternately encouraged and chastened by Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who is the daughter of his deceased former boxing coach.

After all of Charlie’s expensive robots are destroyed, Max literally falls over an older robot called “Atom” in a junkyard.  They fix Atom up and discover he punches well above his weight class.

Kid, let me tell you about this time my plane crashed on an island . . .

Every actor in this movie punches above his or her weight class.  Hugh Jackman gives a typically great performance.  He manages to portray a burned out loser who isn’t an idiot, but constantly does stupid things by impulse.  I normally loathe child actors, but Dakota Goyo is a joy to watch.  He’s precocious, but not annoyingly precocious, like too many child actors.  He still shows expected, childish gaps in his knowledge.  Evangeline Lilly is also wonderful.  She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she packs a lot of heart in the few minutes she slips in and out.  (On a personal note, I find her to be absolutely gorgeous, in a ‘girl next door’ kind of way.)  Kevin Durand is hilariously great as the over-the-top heavy with an exaggerated redneck accent and sneering smile.  (Compare it with his Brooklyn/Ukranian accent on The Strain.  The guy’s got some range.)

(Side note: Sugar Ray Leonard advised the fight choreography.)

I would be amiss in not mentioning the Academy Award nominated robot effects in this movie.  The effects people outdid themselves.  The CGI interacts with the human actors

If you were a vampire, I’d so kill you.

and practical effects in a well-choreographed and very believable fashion.  Contrast it with the awful interactions in pretty much any Transformers movie and you’ll see that people who complain about too much CGI don’t understand.  It’s not the effects–it’s how they’re used.  Real Steel uses them like a maestro.  You can easily fool yourself into thinking these robots are real.

The filmmakers show the science fiction elements of this near-future setting, but don’t cram them down your throat.  Multiple, logical progressions of existing technology linger in the background.  The obvious ones with the robots are still handled in a mundane enough manner to suspend disbelief.

I love all of the above, but the part that really ties it up into a bow is that this is a guy’s movie.  No, not a guy’s movie–a father’s movie.  This entire movie is love letter to fatherhood.  So often these days fathers are mocked and/or shown to be shitheads or simply unnecessary.  (“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.)  This movie does everything but put a banner in praise of fatherhood over the top of the screen.  Fatherhood really matters in this movie and isn’t the least bit shy about showing it.

I’d make a joke about the scene, but I love it too much.

Are there predictable, cliched elements?  Absolutely.  But cliches become cliches because they work. If you have good writing, dialogue and heart, I don’t care if something has been done before.  Real Steel has enough heart for two movies.  I defy any man to not get a little misty-eyed during the Zeus shadow boxing.  Go on, I dare you.

If you’ve never seen this movie–what are you waiting for?!  Go find a copy and watch it!  Immediately!

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