Thursday, March 25, 2010

Robert Culp, Green Hornet & the Torch

Another childhood favorite of mine passed away. This time it was Robert Culp, 79, after a fall.

I first became aware of Culp in The Greatest American Hero and it was my parents that told me about his earlier and groundbreaking show, I-Spy with Bill Cosby. At the time, Cosby was more well known to me as the guy from Fat Albert.

Culp excelled playing the conservative gung-ho, and often exasperated, FBI Agent Bill Maxwell opposite the unassuming liberal Ralph Hinkley who had the super-suit. As a kid and super-hero geek, I loved the show and its theme song. And, who didn't have a crush on Hinkley's fiance played by Connie Sellecca?

I got to see episodes of I Spy in syndication years later, after the advent of cable. A solid and fairly serious spy tv show that Hollywood in typical wisdom turned into a comedy on the big screen ala Starsky & Hutch and Charlie's Angels. See, we accept it with Charlie's Angels because the premise already was a bit ludicrous and straddled being both sexist and empowering when it came out. With that kind of thinking, I'm surprised that the movie version of Dukes of Hazzard wasn't more like Deliverance. I loved how years after the television series, Cosby has Culp making a guest appearance on The Cosby Show, basically as his I Spy character and all the little references to them playing tennis together (their cover identities in the series). While looking for images to use in this blog, I came across a reference to a Diagnosis Murder episode that featured actors from various tv spy shows: Robert Culp (I Spy), Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Patrick Macnee (The Avengers), and Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible). Never saw it, but love the idea.

I saw an old made-for-tv movie several years ago starring Culp called Outrage where he plays a suburban father whose family is harassed by neighborhood kids to the point they kill the family dog but the police and the parents won't do anything to curb them. At which point, Culp takes matters in his own hand. Wonderful stuff.

Of more recent vintage, Culp played the slightly uptight and pretentious father of Patricia Heaton's character on Everybody Loves Raymond, with his charismatic affable charm softening the edges of a character that would probably be annoying to know in real life. Of course, that describes most of the characters on that show with all of their various neuroses.

In addition to starring in a series about a comicbook type hero and in another series that got made into comics as shown here, Robert Culp has another connection to comics. Culp starred in several episodes of The Outer Limits including one called "The Architects of Fear" where a group of scientists decide to trick the world into thinking an alien invasion is imminent with the hopes that the world leaders would set aside their differences and come together in light of the perceived bigger threat. This is, of course, Ozymandias' scheme in Alan Moore's Watchmen. The episode is referenced at the end as it is airing on the tv in the background when Dan and Laurie in their new guises visit her mother.

Green Hornet: Year One: It's interesting to note how terms become part of the lexicon and how each industry or a group will develop their own specialized language. Such as DC coming up with the hardcover reprint line called "Archives", the term now applying pretty much to any hardback collection of a title or character's original run. The look is even reproduced by Dark Horse in their volumes which would be a clear case of trademark infringement otherwise. Likewise Thomas coined the terms "retroactive-continuity" and "ret-con" though they have been in existence for almost as long as the form. It was just never given a name. What was originally a stunt to tie in with Zero Hour, we now have regular "zero issues" trotted out by almost every publisher. Likewise, the term "Year One" has grown apart from it's original meaning. Used by Frank Miller in his revamp origin of Batman in Batman: Year One, it now tends to mean any origin story set in the past of the current continuity.

Thus, this Green Hornet title is not about the first year of his activity but all the years leading up to it and his first outings that would set the tone of his career as masquerading as a masked crime boss preying on other gangs and organized crime.

In some ways, it covers the same ground as Kevin Smith's Green Hornet comic. It sets up the the concept of the Green Hornet as a fighter against organized crime, while being about fathers and sons and their responsibilities. However, Matt Wagner actually delivers the beginnings of a solid story as opposed to Smith's opening ten minutes of a movie.

Wagner layers his story by comparing the childhoods and father-son relationships of both Britt Reid and Kato. He lays out and starts weaving the threads of the two characters' stories into recurring thematic elements, so we see where the story is going. Wagner sets the stage of Britt's father crusading against organized crime through his newspaper, his focus on raising Britt to take up that mantle some day and emphasizing academics as well as athletics. This is contrasted against Kato who is not as adept at the academics and who focuses on training in the martial arts while his father also teaches him about loyalty and the way of the samurai in Japan. And the comic ends with each a young man on a collision course, taking the lessons of their fathers into directions their fathers had not intended. Against the scenes of their growing up, we also see them years later emerging as the Green Hornet and Kato starting their careers, the destination and point of the story being set before the reader.

This is the Green Hornet comic Dynamite should have started with. In one issue, we get the underpinnings of the motivations and forces that drive the characters as well as the facts of the world that they inhabit. Aaron Campbell's artwork is more expressionistic and stylish than his previous work on the publisher's Sherlock Holmes book and looking a lot less blotchy in the inks. The coloring by Francesco Francavilla goes a long way to reinforcing the style and mood through limited color use (the book is almost all orange and green).

The Torch #6: Alex Ross and Mike Carey use a similar plot structure that was in Ross' and Jim Krueger's Avengers/Invaders and that is found in many role playing video games. The story is broken down in distinct Acts with a clear resolution to each Act that sets up the action and story for the following Act. This helps in keeping a story from feeling a little too complex or meandering too terribly much, breaking it down into smaller stories with an over-arcing plot and theme. Issue six is the beginning of Act III. The Torch has been reactivated, he and Toro have their powers back and with the help of the Fantastic Four, stopped an experiment by the Mad Thinker from running completely amok and enslaving the human race. The downfall is that the solution is slowly killing the original Human Torch, with days to live. Meanwhile, the Mad Thinker is still at large and Toro is looking into his mother's role in the Torch's origins.

While not a bad story, it lacks certain logic in human nature. The last issue brought the Torch and the Sub-Mariner together in battle. But, there is no logical follow-up. Namor doesn't feature at all once that aspect of the plot is over with even though he is an old friend and ally of the two from their days in the Invaders and All-Winners Squad and he witnessed Toro's last days and death before this resurrection. Likewise, Toro shows no interest in contacting his wife who was last seen hanging around with the Torch. It's been years for us, but his marriage should be like yesterday to him. At first, I thought that maybe the woman he was with in the diner was her, but it's someone else. Who she is, and how she has contacts with an older spy is not clear. Maybe, if I go back and re-read some of the earlier issues, I'll see that she was introduced earlier.

It's part of a tendency of many modern comics that set up heroes as being just the heroes. The Torch and Toro are back in the land of the living but they seem to be living off of the FF's dime. Take the scene in the diner. Toro has no money, no job and apparently no clothes beyond the new generic outfit given by Reed Richards (I'll grant that his last costume was equally generic). How does he afford to eat out in New York City, even if it's a diner? He shows more interest in getting his powers back and solving the decades old mystery concerning his mother than actually building a life for himself. It's like all of the Avengers who seem to live solely by virtue of the Avengers offering room and board. Toro's whole personality is solely mission based and defined by the plot.

The comic may go down as one of the most defining ones for the Mad Thinker. Of most of the super villain master minds, he's one of the few that never really had an extended story arc or series of appearances that really set him up as a foe to be reckoned with. In this mini, he gets ample room showing off his criminal genius. After the way he manhandled AIM in allowing him to pursue his own pet projects, he gets a little comeuppance here. And, he is in such fine form with his arrogance and superiority complex that at first the massive coincidences and glossed over plot-holes involved swept right by me. How did a dictator of a secreted, remote and almost completely isolated village get in touch with the Thinker? How did they know about his recent work with the Torch (otherwise, why contact him now instead of anytime in the last 20 years)? And, what a huge coincidence that this hitherto unknown leader just so happens to be the man that holds the secrets to Toro's past thus setting him and the Torch on path to another clash with the Mad Thinker.

Another little flaw in the storytelling, one that occurred to me when seeing the online previews, if you have characters speaking in translated word balloons as in the opening scenes, then none of the words in said balloons should be in the foreign language, even if their meaning is clear. It's not the same as if trying to get across someone of foreign background speaking English as their second language and thus peppering their language with foreign words and phrases such as Nightcrawler's exclamations of "Mein Gott" or Colossus calling his comrades "tovarishc". The translated conversation should not be:

"We're not even supposed to be here. It's a Verbotene Zone."
"Sophie, everything is verboten, Let's break the rules for once."
"Fantastisch! It's like a fairy tale!"

"We're not even supposed to be here. It's a Forbidden Zone."
"Sophie, everything is Forbidden, Let's break the rules for once."
"Fantastic! It's like a fairy tale!"
If you are translating, you translate every word apart from proper names.

Lastly, if the Torch is dying due to the destruction and breakdown of the Horton cells, shouldn't this affect Toro's powers. Maybe by the end of the story, we'll see Toro sacrifice his life or his powers in order to save the Torch. After all, do we really need three almost identical flaming heroes in the M.U.?

Still, a solid enough read and it stands on its own, no need to be getting all those other tie-ins, other mini's and one-shots or titles you don't normally read in order to get the full story.

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