Neal Dhand’s ‘Second-Story Man’

Second-Story Man, Neal Dhand’s feature film debut, is a moody drama that, despite pacing problems and a somewhat meandering narrative, unfolds as a thoughtful meditation on morality.

In cold, snowy upstate New York, Arthur Black (Christopher J. Domig) and his girlfriend Valerie Evering (Monique Low) commit petty robberies of small shops and liquor stores with their young daughter Maria Low (Zaira Crystal) in tow. When their attempt to pull off a slightly larger bank heist goes awry, Arthur’s already desperate existence takes a turn for the worse as he begins plotting revenge against Max Rivers (Danny Hoskins), the bank’s security guard whom he blames for the outcome of the failed robbery.

Arthur and Maria move into an apartment in an old multi-family house where Max and his wife Janet (Lindsay Goranson) dwell on the second story along with their daughter Holly (Lea Mancarella). A quirky elderly couple live in the basement floor beneath Arthur, and a mysterious younger couple, seen only in glimpses, occupy an apartment on the ground floor adjacent to Arthur’s. As Arthur continues to obsessively track Max, he tries to hold together his relationship with Maria and slowly establishes a genuine bond with Max’s beleaguered wife Janet. He also begins to hear conversations through the wall of a neighboring couple who appear to be plotting against Max and Janet’s daughter Holly.

The body of the film becomes a contemplation on the nature of what it means to be a “good” person and the impact of the obsession with vengeance. As the story moves toward its ending, the film’s title gains additional layers of meaning.

Unfortunately, after the crisp first act, the plotting becomes more plodding. The film’s pacing is maddeningly glacial at times and the narrative often strays from the main story line in a way that retards the story’s progress toward its bleak conclusion. The film’s middle act desperately needs tightening. The challenge, of course, is determining what to leave in and what to excise.

Director and co-writer Dhand was in attendance at the County Theater in Doylestown, PA for a Q&A following a screening of the film last night. Dhand explained that the film’s distributor plans to make additional edits for the DVD release (scheduled for June 26, 2012). Regrettably, these planned cuts may do more harm than good. According the Dhand, the scenes featuring the elderly husband and wife who live downstairs from Arthur and Maria will be excised from the DVD release. If true, this is unfortunate. The couple is key to the film’s story, and removing their introduction will make an already too-cryptic plot more confusing and likely cause the ending to appear tacked on and arbitrary rather than the inevitable tragedy that it is.

There are other sections of the film that could be more effectively targeted for trimming. Arthur’s tracking of Max is unnecessarily drawn out and could be told more efficiently. Furthermore, the snippets of conversation Arthur overhears through the wall seem too sparsely spread out. These disturbing voices drive the narrative forward in the final act, yet the story veers away from these plot elements for too long. By removing other scenes from the middle section of the film, these key moments would better drive forward the momentum of the narrative.

There’s also a shocking didn’t-see-that-coming moment that plays like a scene from a different film. (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games comes to mind.) Divorced from Haneke’s meta-movie manipulations, however, the scene comes off like a cheap trick. While effective in the moment, it undermines the impact of the eventual resolution of the narrative and would be better relegated to the editing room floor.

The performances in Second-Story Man are all generally strong. Domig is effective in the lead, as is Hoskins in the supporting male role. Lindsay Goranson provides the film’s strongest performance in the key supporting role of Janet. Goranson’s expressions convey Janet’s interior conflicts and imbue the character with a sense of fragile vulnerability. The deepening relationship between Arthur and Janet forms the film’s emotional heart and is sustained by the performances of both actors.

The snowy exteriors function like an additional character in the film, effectively evoking the tale’s sense of loss and emotional isolation. The artful location work in Rochester, New York is brought to life by the first-rate cinematography of Chase Bowman. The evocative score by Eric Zabriskie helps to heighten the mood and move forward much of the otherwise sluggish middle act.

Second-Story Man is an auspicious debut for director, producer, and co-writer Dhand. During the Q&A at the County Theater, Dhand briefly described the next feature he hopes to direct, a mystery tentatively called The Lighthouse about two men who discover a severed foot. The story sounds like a promising follow-up feature if Dhand can repeat the merits of Second-Story Man while gaining more control over the film’s pacing and narrative flow.

The image from Second-Story Man is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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Media Marketing and the Evolution of Narrative Structure


To no one’s surprise, the highest-grossing movie this weekend was Marvel Studio’s The Avengers, which brought in over $200 million in the U.S. While nothing is ever certain in Hollywood — even a big-budget, effects-laden production can underperform (as Marvel parent Disney found out with John Carter) — The Avengers seemed destined to generate a box office bonanza. The film brings together characters from a series of previous films which grossed a total of nearly a billion dollars — Iron Man in 2008 ($318,412,101), Iron Man 2 in 2010 ($312,433,331), Thor in 2011 ($181,030,624), and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 ($176,654,505) — not counting the two previous films starring the Hulk.

Disney’s Marvel Studios has been preparing the audience for this film for several years. After the closing credits of 2008′s Iron Man, an extra scene appears in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) encounters S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who states: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.” Similar scenes appeared in subsequent movies starring the other Marvel superheroes who comprise the Avengers. Clark Greg’s “Agent Coulson” appears in several of the films, providing character continuity leading up to The Avengers. Additional teases were thrown in for the hardcore fans. In Thor, there’s a brief appearance of a character played by Jeremy Renner, who is listed in the credits as Clint Barton. Fans would recognize the character as the Avengers’ Hawkeye.

All of these maneuvers may seem like typical Hollywood marketing ploys: Team-up the characters from several successful films into one big event movie, build marketing teases into the earlier films, and throw in a crossover character or two. But Hollywood has nothing on the comic book industry, which is a font of marketing techniques based on clever storytelling techniques. Comic books have explored — and exploited — narrative structure like no other medium.

Team-Ups and Crossovers

Comic books have used myriad narrative techniques such as multi-issue story arcs, crossovers, team-ups, reboots, and multiple title tie-ins to “maxi-story” series to sell more comic books. In the process, they may have also blazed a trail for new forms of complex storytelling.

The team-up, as illustrated by The Avengers, brings together multiple superheroes in a single story. Before this weekend’s blockbuster film, The Avengers comic book, created by Marvel Comics in 1963, brought together a superhero team comprised of many of that company’s most popular characters. Before Marvel’s Avengers, there was DC’s Justice League of America, a superhero team-up which first appeared in 1960. And before that, DC Comics assembled the Justice Society of America, which first appeared in 1940.

Akin to the team-up is the guest appearance or character crossover — when one superhero appears in the comic book title of another character. When Spider-Man was given his own comic in 1963, Marvel’s most popular superheroes at the time, the Fantastic Four, made a guest appearance. (“The Fantastic Four think I’m trapped! But they don’t suspect my real power!” Spider-Man declares on the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #1.) When introducing a new comic book, why not get fans of your most popular characters to give the issue a look?

Many crossovers involve the characters engaged in a fight — even though both are generally “good guys”:  Spider-Man versus Daredevil, the Hulk versus the Thing, Batman versus Superman, and so on. Nearly every combination of superheroes has gone head-to-head in one or more cross-title confrontations. In 1976, even superheroes from competing companies — DC’s Superman and Marvel’s Spider-Man — faced off against each other in a 92-page comic published jointly by both Marvel and DC titled, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century. Currently underway at Marvel Comics is “Avengers vs. X-Men,” a limited series crossover between two of Marvel’s superhero teams.

In The Flash #123 in 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds!” an unusual crossover tale in which the Flash from the 1960s Silver Age of comic books encounters the Flash from the earlier Golden Age of the 1940s.  This issue of The Flash also introduced Earth-Two and advanced the concept of the multiverse in DC comic books – the existence of multiple, parallel worlds, each with its own characters and history. This opened the door to crossover events spanning the multiverse. A story pairing the Silver Age members of the Justice League of America and the Golden Age Justice Society of America became an annual tradition in the DC universe.

Techniques like the team-up and the crossover imply that the characters live in a universe larger than that told in each individual story. The characters inhabit a world in which the individual stories are only small slices. In some instances, the tales in comics explicitly reference their relationship with the real world. In Fantastic Four #11, the members of the superhero team stop by their local comic book shop to pick up the current issue of their own eponymous comic. When they find a long line waiting to get the new issue, Sue Storm (the Invisible Girl) suggests they come back later. The curmudgeonly Thing replies, “What’s the big deal. We know how the stories end!” Within their world, comic books aren’t fiction — they’re reportage.

Expanding the Narrative Form

Throughout the history of these narrative techniques, the story structure of comic books continuously evolved.

Early comic books typically contained short vignettes with one or more self-contained stories within a single issue. Spider-Man first appeared as one of four short fantasy tales in issue #15 of Amazing Fantasy in 1962. The first issue of Spider-Man’s solo comic book several months later, The Amazing Spider-Man in 1963, contains two separate, self-contained stories. (As the cover touts: “2 great feature-length Spider-Man thrillers!”)

Single-issue story arcs quickly became the norm for superhero comics at the dawn of the Silver Age. Within a few years, however, storylines commonly stretched across multiple issues, such as the single story arc in issues #31, #32 and #33 of  The Amazing Spider-Man from 1965-66. Like the movie serials popular in the 1930s and 1940s, issue #32 ends with a cliff-hanger, with Spider-Man trapped beneath an enormous weight of metal as water streams in from the cracked dome of an underwater fortress. To find out how he’ll get out of this jam, readers needed to purchase the next issue of the comic book. By the end of the decade, ever-expanding multi-issue tales were the norm.

Many of these individual techniques – such as the multi-episode story and the story as window into a larger world — are found in other media, of course. Movie serials and television series excel at multi-chapter storytelling. J.D. Salinger’s tales of the Glass family evoke a larger narrative universe of which his tales are but fragments. Many other examples in film, television, and the written word could be cited. Yet comic books have honed and extended many of these techniques to a greater extent than most other forms.

The pinnacle of this expanding narrative form is the multi-issue “event” series like the various “Crisis” stories from DC. Here, the narrative extends beyond the titles in the main series, with the story spreading across additional “tie-in” titles.

Over time, the DC multiverse expanded into many parallel worlds, with dozens of different earths each with its own unique features and characters. If this sounds overly complicated, by 1985 the editors at DC Comics reached the same conclusion. DC undertook a plan to push the reset button on much of what had gone before in order to simplify the mythology of their fictional universes.

The result was the year-long 12-issue series, “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” In the course of the tale, several DC characters die, the multiple worlds collapse into a single universe, and the previous histories of the surviving heroes are erased. In 2005-2006, DC again restructured their universe with “Infinite Crisis,” a seven-issue limited series supported by a number of ancillary “tie-in” titles. In 2008, DC launched “Final Crisis,” a seven-issue series with a wide range of tie-in stories in existing titles like Batman and a number of Final Crisis “one-shot” single issues and additional  limited series.

In a recent example of the expanding narrative structure of these comic book mega-events, in 2011 Marvel Comics’ “Fear Itself” series consists of a prologue comic book, a seven-issue limited series containing the core narrative, dozens of tie-in story elements in Marvel comics such as The Avengers, Hulk, and Iron Man; as well as numerous “Fear Itself” one-shot titles; multiple epilogue stories; and “The Fearless,” a 12-issue spin-off miniseries. To take in every aspect of this extended tale would require reading somewhere in the neighborhood of 146 individual comic books.

The story has now become too expansive for most individual readers to fully take in. It’s a world unto its own, that allows the reader to explore whichever dimensions are of the greatest interest. Follow the events from the perspective of Iron Man or Thor. Or just peruse the core series and ignore the supplementary story elements. The series presents a nearly unbounded narrative universe for the reader to explore.

It is easy to interpret this with a cynical eye as nothing more than a series of cheap marketing tactics designed to pump sales. And, indeed, it is difficult to deny that many of these techniques — the crossover, the team-up, the mega-story event, etc. — are intended to drive sales. And yet, when well executed, something larger emerges.

New Forms of Storytelling

At the extreme edge of these techniques, such as the multi-title story events, new forms of storytelling begin to emerge. These extended series give rise to tales that can be viewed from multiple perspectives — from within a single title or across multiple titles, each with their own story arcs. Although all contained within the form of comic books, these are techniques that are being explored in new media forms such as the transmedia storytelling, which unfolds as a single narrative across multiple types of media, and alternate reality games (ARGs), which use the real world as the platform for complex story-telling.

Much of transmedia storytelling and many ARGs are similarly marketing focused — using websites, Twitter feeds, and real-world games to promote movies and television programs. But many observers believe these forms of storytelling will come into their own as new formats for complex, layered, multi-faceted tales.

It may well be that, as new forms of storytelling like transmedia and ARGs develop, we’ll look back at these comic book techniques as the vanguard in the evolution of these new narrative structures. Born of ploys to sell more comic books, these techniques are giving rise to new forms of creative storytelling.

 

A shorter version of this article appears Knowledge@Wharton: “The Avengers, Comic Books and the Future of Storytelling.”

 

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Lyrical Resonance, Reinterpretation, and Renewal

Bruce Springsteen at the Wells Fargo Center - 2012-03-29

Bruce Springsteen at the Wells Fargo Center on March 29, 2012. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse

Bruce Springsteen, March 29, 2012

In the introduction to his song Jack of All Trades last Thursday at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, Bruce Springsteen noted — as he had on previous nights — that the song was penned before the explosion of the current debate about the 99% versus the 1%. “I wrote this when there was no Occupy Movement, there was no discernible outrage [about] the crimes that have been committed or the damage done to lives all across the United States,” Springsteen said. Recent events have given the song a renewed relevance in the current discourse about wealth inequality.

This is one illustration of how time can enhance the meaning of a lyric, of how changing events let us see new depths in a work of art. And it was not the only example from Thursday’s show.

That night’s Springsteen concert was my first since the loss of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who passed away in June 2011. Yet the spirit of the band’s larger-than-life sax player filled the arena throughout the evening. When Clemon’s nephew, saxophonist Jake Clemons, took the stage for a solo he seemed to embody the spirit of his late uncle. And at the end of the nearly 3-hour show, during the band’s autobiographical anthem Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the instrumental accompaniment went silent as Springsteen’s solo voice intoned the lyric, “When the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band.” Springsteen then thrust the microphone into the air for the audience to pay tribute to the missing band member.

For me, the most poignant moment of the evening came earlier in the set during My City of Ruins, a song which Springsteen cast in a new light to honor the memory of both Clemons and former band member Danny Federici, who died in 2008. In introducing the song, Springsteen began, “We’re so glad to be home. The first time we came to Philly, the E Street Band wasn’t even born yet. [We were] four or five guys out of a smoky little bar in New Jersey. But tonight to get done what we need to get done, it takes a village, baby.” Looking out at the audience, he continued, ”We got old friends with us. And we got new friends with us. And I see old faces in the crowd. And I see new faces out there, too…. With your help we’re going to tell a story of hellos and goodbyes. And of the things that leave and of the things that remain.”

In between the song’s chorus and the final verse, Springsteen introduced the E Street Band — now 16 members strong. Following the roll call, he asked the crowd, “Are we missing anybody? Are we missing anybody? Do I have to say the names? Do I have to say the names?” He didn’t. The audience remembered well lost band members Clemons and Federici. ”Because if you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here. So let them hear you,” Springsteen said as he held up the mic to let the crowd make its voice heard, calling out to Clemons and Federici as if the combined cheers of the audience could reach them across the void of death.

My City of Ruins was originally written and performed in late 2000 as a paean to the fading glory of Springsteen’s native Asbury Park, New Jersey. Less than a year later, the song took on new meaning following the September 11, 2001 attacks. When Springsteen performed it on the national telethon “America: A Tribute to Heroes” on September 21, 2001, the song seemed to speak directly to our national loss and desire for renewal.

Last Thursday night, the song gained additional resonance from the recent loss of a beloved friend and longtime member of the band. Although the song’s lyrics originally referenced a romantic relationship, it was difficult not to think of Clarence Clemons when Springsteen sang of the absence of a loved one with the words, “My soul is lost, my friend / Now tell me how do I begin again?”

Yet through these layers of meaning and shifting historical nuance, the song retains a consistent message. Like so many Springsteen songs, My City of Ruins offers the hope of renewal and rebirth in the face of loss and heartbreak, of optimism confronting devastation. Of the things that leave and the things that remain.

 

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Seeing Is Believing – or Is It the Other Way Around?

The essays in Errol Morris’s recent book Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) explore a series of mysteries, each based on one or more photographs. Writer and documentary filmmaker (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Tabloid) Morris uses the photos as the starting point for explorations of what the photos reveal and, in many cases, what they hide.

The photos Morris analyzes range from the relatively obscure (a pair of 1855 photographs of a battle-scared roadway from the Crimean War) to the all-too familiar (the horrifying photos of a hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib). In each case, Morris wants us to look past the “obvious” truth we think we see to explore the deeper meanings hidden beneath. Much of the material in the book originally appeared in a different form in The New York Times’ Opinionator blog.

The first chapter, “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?” explores — in great detail — two photos taken in 1855 by Roger Fenton, a photographer sent to document the British war in the Crimea. Morris’s obsession with detail is revealed at the opening of the chapter. When his friend Ron Rosenbaum incredulously asks, “You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?” Morris replies, “No, it was actually two sentences.”

And, indeed, Morris travels to the Crimea in an attempt to either contradict or confirm Sontag’s assertion in her 2002 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, that Fenton staged one of the two photos by scattering cannon balls on the roadway. One might wonder why it matters, but Morris spends nearly 70 pages exploring Fenton’s photos: looking at how the sunlight falls on the objects in the two photos in an attempt to determine which was taken first, noticing the relative position of stones scattered on the ground, and, yes, traveling to the Crimea to see the spot for himself. Morris’s tortuous investigation eventually determines the relative sequence of the two photos, but why the objects were moved remains something of a mystery.

Another chapter examines the famous “hooded man” photo of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, and explores who is – and who isn’t – the man beneath the hood. In another, he looks at other chilling photos from Abu Ghraib showing U.S. Army reservists giving a “thumbs up” over the corpses of dead prisoners. Unlike Fenton’s photos, these are pictures we’ve all seen — and have opinions about. Morris asks us to look deeper and reassess what we think we know about these photos. Are they examples of a perverse disrespect of a corpse or critical evidence of an even more heinous act (or, perhaps, both)?

Additional chapters look at whether other photographs were somehow staged or manipulated to suit political ends. A depression-era shot of a cattle skull on parched land was declared a “fake” by opponents of Franklin Roosevelt, who was then campaigning for a second term, because the skull may have been moved to compose the shot. The photographers in Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration were tarred with the epithet “drought counterfeiters” for manipulating the scene – even though the area was, in fact, experiencing one of the worst droughts in American history.

Seventy years later, a slew of news photos from different photographers that all show a child’s toy lying on the ground among bombed ruins in Lebanon raises similar questions about whether objects were placed in the scene to make a political statement.

In the final chapter, Morris traces the curious and dark history of a photo found in the hand of a slain Union soldier on the Gettysburg battleground. The soldier had no identification, no regimental insignia or personal effects, except a photo clutched in his hand of three small children. Morris follows the trail to identify the soldier and uncover the story of the now orphaned children.

Morris’s obsession with capturing every detail can be wearing at times. At one point in the exploration of the Fenton photos, Morris, having reached a dead end, wonders what to do next. He contemplates collecting all the extant copies of the Fenton photos from around the world. “It seemed painstaking and absurd,” Morris writes, “but would this be any more absurd than what I had already done?” Indeed.

Interviews with various sources are, apparently, reprinted verbatim and in full, where an edited summary might cover the key points in a more readable form. But one senses that this type of editorial refinement would offend Morris, who wants to wring every bit of truth from each snippet of source material.

As fascinating as these studies are (for the reader who has the endurance to follow their threads through all the details), some would seem to have more relevance than others. Why American soldiers took snapshots of prisoner corpses at Abu Ghraib is an important exploration of U.S. military conduct. On the other hand, whether an 1855 photo from the Crimea was “staged” by placing (or removing) cannon balls would seem to be of only arcane academic concern.

But Morris wants to do more than explore the facts behind these specific photos. He wants us to question what we see, to realize that “photographs provide evidence, but no shortcut to reality.” Morris writes: “It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.” In this era of political debate by sound bite and news squeezed into 140-character tweets, it’s refreshing to find someone willing to search behind the “obvious” meaning of a headline — or a photograph — to find the deeper truth buried inside.

 

This article was originally published in Knowledge@Wharton.

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Joe Simon and the Great American Hero

Before Captain America was the star of last summer’s blockbuster movie, he was a comic book superhero. The man who co-created the character over 70 years ago, comic book writer and artist Joe Simon, passed away this past Wednesday in New York.

Two months earlier, Simon spoke at New York Comic Con, a convention for fans of comic books and popular culture. It was three days after Simon’s 98th birthday, and as he entered the meeting room at the Javits Center, the enthusiastic crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to the comic hero creator.

The cover of the first issue of Captain America shows the character and his side-kick Bucky fighting Nazis, with the Captain himself socking Adolf Hitler on the jaw. Looking at the illustration now, it’s easy to write it off as typical American wartime propaganda.

But look closely at the issue date. Newsstand comics were routinely dated two or three months later than their actual publication date (so issues that lingered on the shelves unsold wouldn’t appear to be outdated). With a cover date of March 1941, that first issue of Captain America was likely created in late 1940 or early 1941. The U.S. entry into the Second World War was nearly a year in the future.

When Simon and partner Jack Kirby were looking for a villain for their new comic book, they didn’t have to venture into the realm of fantasy – there was horror enough arising in Europe. Concluding that the best comics were the ones with the best villains, Simon thought, “Let’s get a real live villain.” Hitler was the obvious choice. As Simon wrote in his autobiography, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, “We knew what was happening in Europe, and were outraged by the Nazis – totally outraged. We thought it was a good time for a patriotic hero.” And thus Captain America was created to go up against the rising Nazi threat.

Simon and Kirby did give Captain America a fantastical opponent — the Red Skull, the idea for which came to Simon as he watched hot fudge dripping down the ice cream on a sundae. Simon was struck by how the pattern of the fudge looked like arms and legs, and he began to imagine a new villain – one who oozed all over the place and could be called Hot Fudge. He quickly rejected that idea. He then realized the cherry on top of the sundae resembled a skull and thought, “Red Skull … that sounds good.” And Captain America’s arch-villain was born.

In creating Captain America, Simon sought to devise something different from the spate of superhero characters that appeared following the success of Superman in 1938. “Comics used to be right out of a mold,” he told the audience at New York Comic Con. At industry leader DC Comics, Simon said, “You put all the ingredients in a cake, shake it, twist it around — and out would come a DC comic…. We came out with something different. Jack Kirby’s great artwork was totally different from anything that DC was putting out.”

Simon went on to create other remarkable heroes and villains, many in conjunction with Kirby. The team developed the Sandman, the Blue Bolt, the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos, Manhunter, and many others. The pair also worked in a wide range of genres beyond superheroes, including titles focused on crime, war, romance, western adventure, horror, and humor.

Throughout his long career, Simon worked with many of the major figures in the industry. Stan Lee, the longtime Marvel Comics writer and editor – and one of the best known and most influential people in the industry – began his career working with Simon as, in Simon’s words, his “assistant and gopher.” Speaking at New York Comic Con, Simon said, “[Stan Lee] is a good guy. I like Stan.” He then jokingly added, “I made him what he is today.”

Simon was one of a number of early comic book creators who later fought for the rights to their earlier work. As Captain America continued to generate revenue through comic books and other forms of popular entertainment, Simon sought to reclaim the copyright to the character. His legal battle with Marvel over Captain America was eventually settled out of court.

Throughout his career Simon seemed intrigued by what makes someone a hero. It was a fascination that began early in his life.

At New York Comic Con, Simon relayed the story of an old veteran from the Civil War who visited his school when he was eight or nine years old. The man proudly held an old 35-star U.S. flag and burst into song, “Ah, the old flag never touched the ground, boys. The dear old flag was never down….” He shook the hand of each student declaring, “Shake the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln!”

A key moment in the tale was Simon’s account of the difference in the reaction of the teacher and the students to the old soldier. As the man rambled on, at one point the teacher, standing behind him, twirled her finger around while pointing at her head. In her view, the old man was a bit loony. Simon and the young students, however, saw something different. “None of us agreed with her,” Simon told the Comic Con audience. “We thought this guy was a great, great American hero.”

It was clearly a story that made an impact on Simon. It serves as the preface to his autobiography published in 2011, in which Simon wrote, “I would always remember the odd little fighting man as I continued in my life-long quest for the great American Hero. Eventually I would find him … and more.”

The version of the story Simon spun at New York Comic Con was long and rambling, often skipping around from point to point. But, even if his narrative did meander, his memory of the event – after close to a century – was clear and sharp. To the admiring audience, he must have seemed much like the character in his own story: aged – even a bit doddering – yet still an icon of an earlier era of heroism.

Update [December 19, 2011]: A version of this article is also published in Knowledge@Wharton.

The image from Captain America includes fictional, copyrighted characters and a copyrighted publication. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution image for identification and critical commentary qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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The Legacy of Jerry Robinson

Jerry Robinson

Batman is now big business. The character starred in motion pictures that generated the highest domestic box office grosses in two separate years: 1989 (Batman) and 2008 (The Dark Knight). Batman has been reinterpreted over the decades — from Adam West’s campy portrayal in the 1960s television series to the dark and gritty interpretations of writer/illustrator Frank Miller and filmmaker Christopher Nolan. Yet, throughout the years, the mythology of Batman has remained a cornerstone of popular culture.

Artist and illustrator Jerry Robinson, who died this past Wednesday at age 89, was there at the beginning. He was instrumental in developing the mythos and iconography of Batman. His legacy, however, extends far beyond the catalog of his artwork.

Robinson created many of the characters in the Batman comic books and gave life to many others through his illustrations. While there is some dispute over the origins of Batman’s archvillain the Joker, most comic book historians credit Robinson as the primary creator of the character. Robinson also gave birth to many other heroes and villains in the Batman lexicon, including sidekick Robin, loyal butler Alfred, and villains like Two-Face.

Robinson began his professional career at the dawn of the modern comic book era. At age 17, he met artist Bob Kane and began to illustrate Batman, the first major superhero to follow in the wake of the runaway success of Superman. At the time, comic books were viewed as trite — even disreputable — entertainment for children. Now, decades later, Warner Bros. Pictures is hoping The Dark Knight Rises – with an estimated production budget of  $250,000,000 – will be the blockbuster hit of 2012.

Beyond his own work, Robinson taught and inspired other creative artists. He was an early faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York. There he taught, among others, artist Steve Ditko who went on to co-create with Stan Lee the characters of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.

When I spoke with Robinson at San Diego Comic Con last July, I asked whether he was still in touch with the famously reclusive Ditko. He indicated that he hadn’t seen him recently, but quickly added “I taught him, you know.” He was obviously pleased with the accomplishment.

Robinson was also a pioneer in working for creators’ rights. Much of Robinson’s early work was done without attribution (which was a more common practice then than now). His artwork on Batman would be submitted to Bob Kane who would add his signature to the opening splash page and submit the work to the publisher under his own name.

Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster reportedly sold the rights to Superman for $130. Decades later, when the big-budget Superman movie was being filmed, the pair were nearly destitute and largely forgotten. Robinson (along with fellow artist Neal Adams) instigated a public campaign to support the two creators, which eventually convinced Warner Communications to provide them a small stipend and, perhaps equally important, give them credit for their creation. Siegel and Shuster’s victory, modest though it was, became the first shot in the series of legal battles that continues to this day.

Robinson leaves behind a large body of artwork and a rich catalog of fictional characters, but his legacy extends much further — to all the people he touched and the causes he championed. He was witness to — and an active participant in — the entire history of the superhero in comic books and popular culture. His impact continues to live on in the industry he helped to create.

Jerry Robinson Jerry Robinson and Gro Bagn Robinson Jerry Robinson Jerry Robinson and John Romita Sr. Jerry Robinson

Update [December 12, 2011]: A few related comments on Jerry Robinson appear in this article in Knowledge@Wharton: The Serious Legacy of Jerry Robinson, Creator of Batman’s Joker.

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‘Margin Call’: Quiet Desperation

This commentary on the film Margin Call contains significant details about its plot. You may want to see the film before reading it.

Economic thriller Margin Call is, in many ways, a difficult film to like — and that’s what makes it worth seeing. The movie’s uncompromising look at desperate men (and one woman) in the throes of a moral crisis finds no happy ending. And that can be both grueling and fascinating to watch.

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker J. C. Chandor, Margin Call takes place in a large investment firm over the course of two days and one very long night during the economic meltdown of 2008. In the middle of that night, the company realizes its highly leveraged mortgage-backed securities are more sensitive to volatile market conditions than was previously thought, and recent market movements have already passed the threshold that their models predicted. Their investment scheme and the financial products on which it is based are unraveling. When it’s determined that the company’s financial exposure exceeds its market capitalization, the corporate officers are faced with a fateful decision: sell the soon-to-be worthless assets — and, in the process, harm not only their customers but their own reputations (both as individuals and as a firm) — or let the company go under. The movie follows several employees as they come to grips with the ramifications of this dilemma.

The strength of the film — which is also what makes it difficult to like — is that all of the characters’ actions are unpalatable. This is not a story of good guys versus bad guys, merely people making seemingly rational, if terrible, choices.

Despite our desire for someone to make a noble gesture of defiant righteousness, Margin Call doesn’t give us that cathartic satisfaction. There’s no Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) in the China Syndrome shutting himself inside the nuclear power control room to prevent the reactor from being restarted, no Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) working with the Feds to snare Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street. There are just people making desperate choices.

While some characters — such as Kevin Spacey’s morally conflicted Sam Rogers — are more sympathetic than others, when faced with the film’s crisis, each makes essentially the same loathsome choice. Their reasons differ: It’s the only choice they believe they have, they are serving a greater good, or they simply need the money. Some are motivated by political machinations, some by weakness, and some by fear, but in the end, they all feel they have no option other than the choice each eventually makes.

Well acted and well directed, the film moves at a crisp pace as the crisis mounts and pulls more people into its orbit, yet the movie isn’t afraid to pause for a momentous silence at several points. There is a harrowing power in the lack histrionics in the characters’ actions. The soft tones of everyone’s oh-so-professional demeanor make several scenes particularly chilling. The personnel officer utters well-rehearsed answers to any possible question as Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is being let go from the firm. When Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) tells Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) that if they are going down, he knows that they’ll both go down together, Baker icily responds, ”I’m not sure that I do know that.”

Margin Call is a closely-observed study of motivations — all of which differ, but all of which ultimately lead to essentially the same devastating outcome.

 

Update [November 8, 2011]: A slightly expanded version of this commentary is published in Knowledge@Wharton. See: “The Movie ‘Margin Call’: No Happy Ending.”

The image from Margin Call is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the film and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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New York Comic Con 2011 in Photos

Photos from New York Comic Con 2011

The Javits Center became the center of the pop culture universe this past weekend when more than 100,000 fans of science fiction, fantasy, and superhero movies, television, and comic books descended on the Big Apple for New York Comic Con 2011. Because of its proximity to the heart of the comic book industry in Manhattan, New York Comic Con (run by ReedPOP, a division of Reed Exhibitions and Reed Elsevier) has the reputation of being focused on the show’s historical roots in comic books more than its West Coast cousin, San Diego Comic-Comic (run by Comic-Con International).

And, indeed, the full history of comic books was on display at the New York event, including a panel session with Captain America co-creator Joe Simon (just three days past his 98th birthday), a session on ”Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Bob Kane’s The Batman,” and an announcement of a new comic book series from famed comic book impresario Stan Lee.

Yet Hollywood was in full force at New York Comic Con as well, with a session with the stars of Joss Whedon’s forthcoming Avengers movie, and panel sessions on television shows including “The Walking Dead,” “Nikita,” and “Terra Nova.”

Here is New York Comic Con 2011 from my perspective in 200 photos. Separate sets for selected highlights include:

'The Avengers' panel at New York Comic Con

“The Avengers”: Mark Ruffalo, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Evans, Kevin Feige, and Chris Hardwick.

The Avengers panel with actors Mark Ruffalo, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans; Marvel Studios President of Production Kevin Feige; and moderator Chris Hardwick.

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'The Walking Dead' at New York Comic Con

“The Walking Dead”: Robert Kirkman, Jon Bernthal, Laurie Holden, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Chandler Riggs, Norman Reedus, Gale Anne Hurd, and Greg Nicotero.

The session on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” with writer/producer Robert Kirkman, producer  Gale Anne Hurd, special effects and makeup supervisor  Greg Nicotero, and actors Jon Bernthal, Laurie Holden, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Chandler Riggs and Norman Reedus.

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'Nikita' panel at New York Comic Con 2011

“Nikita”: Maggie Q, Shane West, and Albert Kim.

Actors Maggie Q and Shane West along with and writer and co-producer Albert Kim on the “Nikita” panel, moderated by IGN’s Eric Goldman.

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'Terra Nova' panel at New York Comic Con 2011

“Terra Nova”: Stephen Lang, Jason O’Mara, and Brannon Braga.

The “Terra Nova” panel with actors Stephen Lang and Jason O’Mara, and Executive Producer Brannon Braga.

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Joe Simon at New York Comic Con 2011

Joe Simon

Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America, in conversation with Steve Saffel.

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'Will Eisner and Bob Kane' panel at New York Comic Con 2011

“Will Eisner and Bob Kane”:  N. C. Christopher Couch,  Paul Levitz, Dennis O’Neil, Michael Uslan, and Danny Fingeroth.

The panel session on “Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Bob Kane’s The Batman” with N. C. Christopher Couch,  Paul Levitz, Dennis O’Neil, Michael Uslan, and moderator Danny Fingeroth.

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Stan Lee at New York Comic Con 2011

Stan Lee

Stan Lee announcing “Stan Lee’s Kids Universe” from 1821 Comics.

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Comic book creators at New York Comic Con 2011

Comic Book Creators

Comic book artists, writers, and editors.

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Cosplay at New York Comic Con 2011

Cosplay

And, of course, cosplay: comic book fans who attended the conference in the attire of the favorite superhero or villain.

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Life Lessons from Bret Maverick — and My Father

James Garner as Bret Maverick

Real life never seems as clever as the world of motion pictures and television. Fictional characters always look better and speak with more eloquence than the people in our daily lives. As a child of the television generation, I often lamented that my life wasn’t as colorful as that of the characters I saw on the TV screen — not just in regard to the big, exciting occurrences but, as well, the small, charming moments I saw on TV and in the movies.

I remember being particularly captivated by the witticisms of Bret Maverick, as portrayed by James Garner in the ABC television series that ran from 1957 to 1962. Garner’s character would toss off homespun aphorisms he had learned from his father, Beauregard “Pappy” Maverick. They would always begin, “As my Pappy used to say…” and then include some pithy bit of wisdom about playing poker or whatever — although the messages always seemed to have a larger meaning.

“As my Pappy used to say, ‘Never hold a kicker and never draw to an inside straight,’” Maverick would say. Or, “Never play in a rigged game, unless you rig it yourself.” And so on.

As a young boy, I wondered why my father didn’t utter clever bits of wisdom like this to guide me through my life’s journey. Years later I realized that, perhaps unintentionally, he did.

I have a clear recollection of one particular evening as a young boy playing Scrabble with my parents. (Yes, believe it or not, in the olden days families would occasionally get together to play board games like Scrabble.)

My Scrabble skills were less than stellar. When holding a Scrabble tile with a high point value, such as a Z (10 points), I would contemplate how to extract the maximum value from the piece. I was reluctant use the tile in a simple play like “zoo” (12 points) or even “fez” (15 points). If only I could get the tile on a premium square, it would be worth so much more. If I could just play the Z on a double-letter square, “fez” would give me 25 points. If I could play “fez” on a triple-word square, I would attain a whopping 45 points.

If I had another move — even with fewer points — I would sometimes hold the high-value tile for the chance of getting more points in a later move.

This strategy, of course, seldom worked as intended. I’d eventually play the tile making the same or, often, fewer points than the earlier move would have accomplished. Or, worse yet, I’d get stuck holding the tile at the end of the game when its value would be deducted from my final score. (Oh, the bitter irony!)

At the end of one such game, I explained to my dad that I had been saving the tile in the hope of making a killer play. He casually suggested, “Always make your best move.” Don’t save a valuable tile for later. Make the play now and move on.

My father didn’t intend this to be a life lesson. He meant it merely has a basic strategy for playing Scrabble. Yet, for some reason, I’ve never forgotten this comment. I think of it often in situations that have nothing to do with Scrabble: “Always make your best move.”

And, thanks to Bret Maverick, I also never draw to an inside straight.

The image from “Maverick” is from a copyrighted television program, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the program and possibly also by the actor appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the program and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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‘Resurrect Dead’: Photos, Reviews, and Ongoing Mysteries

Toynbee Tile

Toynbee tile at 34th and Chestnut streets, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: Kendall Whitehouse

Jon Foy’s fascinating documentary film, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, recently ended its inaugural Philadelphia run, playing to capacity crowds. Due to the success of the initial screenings, a sixth show was added to the originally-planned five shows at Philadelphia’s International House. The movie now moves on to additional screenings across the U.S.

Resurrect Dead: Philadelphia Premiere. Photos: Kendall Whitehouse

Resurrect Dead follows the exploits of a trio of amateur sleuths seeking to uncover the secrets of the Toynbee tiles — linoleum signs embedded in roadways across the eastern United States and in a few cities in South America. Many of these tiles contain the message:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN MOVIE 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

The meaning of the cryptic tiles — and the person behind them — have long remained a mystery. The investigators in Foy’s film doggedly pursue an increasingly bizarre trail of clues: an old newspaper article, a perplexing radio play by David Mamet, and rumors of  pirate radio broadcasts. The movie takes the audience along with the protagonists’ journey as they move ever closer to the center of the mystery.

Resurrect Dead: Second Philadelphia Show. Photos: Kendall Whitehouse

I’ve now attended three four five screenings of the film — an early press screening in New York on February 9, 2011, the Philadelphia premiere on September 8, 2011, the second Philadelphia showing on September 10, 2011, a screening at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on February 6, 2012, and a showing at the County Theater in Doylestown on March 21, 2012 — and each viewing has provided new insights and engendered a greater appreciation for how cleverly Foy has structured the film.

In its brief 85 minutes, the film weaves together three narrative threads: the search for the identity of the tiler, an explication of the meaning of the tiles,  and — perhaps most notably — the tale of the film’s main protagonist and lead investigator, Justin Duerr.

Resurrect Dead has generally garnered positive reviews — including from the New York Times and Roger Ebert. (The New York Post, however, took a somewhat different view.) My own — very positive — review is here: On Technology and Media: “Uncovering What Lies Beneath.”

My interview with the film’s writer/director Jon Foy appears in Knowledge@Wharton: “Building a Mystery: The Toynbee Tiles and Jon Foy’s Filmmaking Quest.”

Photographs from the Philadelphia premiere on September 8, 2011, the second Philadelphia showing on September 10, screenings at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on February 6, 2012, and the County Theater in Doylestown on March 21, 2012,  along with the early press screening on February 9, 2011, are in my Flickr account. Several of my photos are also featured on the film’s official website and Facebook page.

Photos of some of the Toynbee tiles I’ve encountered are in my Flickr account as well. The Toynbee Tiles group in Flickr contains a much larger collection of tile photos, including many early tiles that have long been paved over or destroyed — including the famed “manifesto tile” with its wild, paranoid rant that offers a unique insight into the mind of the elusive tiler.

Meanwhile, new tiles continue to appear. It remains unclear which, if any, are being created by the original tiler.

[Update 1:]  Link to photos from the screening at the Trocadero added.

[Update 2:] Link to photos from the screening at the County Theater added.

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