Saturday, 15 January 2005

Lost

Last year, at the beginning of the television season, I stated that the word for this season was "bland." For the most part I stand by that. For the most part the shows that debuted this television season have been derivative and unremarkable. Little did I know that there would be one exception to the overall banality of this year's TV offerings, a show simply called Lost.

When I first heard the premise for Lost, I thought it sounded utterly preposterous. For one thing, with today's technology it seems impossible that a plane load of people could remain stranded on an island very long. For another, I thought that a show about people stranded on an island would run out of stories to tell pretty rapidly, unless they played it for laughs (and that has been done before--the classic Gilligan's Island). Little did I know that creator J. J. Abrams had more in mind than a TV version of Robinson Crusoe with more characters.

Indeed, there is more to Lost than meets the eye. Abrams has left many questions to be answered, not the least of which is what caused the plane to crash and exactly where our castaways are. Why don't the compasses point to where north should be? How did John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) miraculously start walking after the crash, when he had been in a wheel chair before? What is the mysterious beastie that stalks the island's jungles? One thing seems clear. This island is like no other. In fact, it might not even be in this reality...

Much of the success of Lost can be attributed to its large and fine cast. Dominic Monaghan (Merry from the Lord of the Rings movies) is perfect as Charlie, the good hearted rock star who is recovering from a heroin addiction. Josh Holloway is all too convincing as Sawyer, the bad guy in the group who always looking to make a quick buck. Perhaps the best performance is given by veteran Terry O'Quinn as the mysterious John Locke, the man who seems to know literally everything.

If Lost has one flaw, it is Abrams' tendency to telegraph his foreshadowing. The perfect example is from the pilot episode. People keep walking in front of the plane's turbines, which are still spinning. It doesn't take much for even a none too bright viewer to realise that sooner or later someone will get sucked into the turbine (and they do...).

For the most part, however, Lost is an enjoyable ride. Even when one starts thinking that the show is a bit far fetched, the show soon traps them once more. Lost is an enthralling show to watch. And the single bright spot in an otherwise dull season.

Friday, 14 January 2005

The 300 Spartans

My DVD of The 300 Spartans arrived from Amazon.Com today. I seem to recall seeing it as a child. I know I saw it a few years ago on TCM. Naturally, I watched it again tonight.

The 300 Spartans is based on the battle of Thermopylae, recounted in Herodotus's Histories. It was at the pass of Thermopylae that King Leonidas of Sparta and 300 Spartans fought King Xerxes of Persia and his absolutely vast army (Herodotus estimates 3.4 million; modern historians number his forces at anywhere from 25.000 to 300.000). Although Leonidas and his are ultimately defeated, they delayed Xerxes long enough for the rest of Greece to gather enough forces to defeat the Persians.

The 300 Spartans was one of the last sword and sandal epics, released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1962. Beyond Richard Egan and Sir Ralph Richardson, some of the acting is a bit stilted. Some of the battle scenes seem rather disorganised at times, not quite what one would expect of two highly trained forces of soldiers. And an entirely unneccessary romance is introduced into the plot. But don't let these shortcomings deceive you. The 300 Spartans is one of those movies that is greater than the sum of its parts.

First, The 300 Spartans is one of the few historical movies that remains somewhat loyal to its source material. The plot more or less follows Herodotus' tale of the battle, with only a few departures from the text. This is remarkable for any movie based on a historical event, even those made today. Second, while some of the battle scenes could have used better choreography, there are others that are absolutely brilliant. The final showdown between the Spartans and their Persian enemies is appropriately dramatic and accomplishes much without the benefit of a big budget or special effects. Third, both Richard Egan and Sir Ralph Richardson give stellar performances. Indeed, Egan has some of the best lines from any movie, particularly the line "Today we will fight in the shade," in response to Persian claims that their arrows will blot out the sun (the line is straight from Herodotus!). Fourth, the film is beautifullly shot. It has some fine cinematography.

The average film goer today probably has not heard of The 300 Spartans, which is unfortunate. While the film does not match Spartacus, it is superior to many other sword and sandal movies. And it tells one of the most compelling stories straight from the pages of history.

Thursday, 13 January 2005

The Late, Great Will Eisner

On January 3, 2005, perhaps the greatest legend in comic books died. Will Eisner died at age 87 following quadruple bypass heart surgery in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Eisner not only created numerous comic book and comic strip characters (the most famous of which was probably The Spirit), but also changed the shape of comic books and introduced the concept of the graphic novel. Most importantly, perhaps more than any other single creator, he argued for the acceptance of comic books and comic strips as genuine works of art.

Will Eisner was born in Brooklyn, NY on March 6, 1917. He attended high school at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where Bob Kane (the creator of Batman) was one of his classmates. Eisner was 19 when he sold his first work to Wow What a Magazine! There he created two features, Harry Karry and The Flame (later renamed Hawks of the Sea).

Wow What a Magazine! folded after four issues, after which Eisner entered into a partnership with friend Jerry Iger to form the Eisner-Iger studio. The Eisner-Iger studio was the first of its kind, a studio dedicated to generating comic strips both for newspapers and the new medium of comic books. The studio employed many artists who would later become famous: Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, and Bob Kane. The Eisner-Iger Studio produced strips for such comic book publishers as Fiction House, Quality Comics, and Fox Publications. It was at the studio that Eisner co-created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with Jerry Iger.

Eisner parted ways with Iger in 1939 for a deal with Quality Comics. There Eisner created some of the most enduring comic book characters: Doll Man (one of the earliest superheros and the first with shrinking powers), Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, The Black Condor (co-created with Lou Fine), and The Ray (also co-created with Lou Fine). It was Quality Comics that would lead to his most enduring creation. Everett M. Arnold, Quality's publisher, had struck upon the idea of producing comic book like inserts to be placed in Sunday newspapers. Arnold asked Eisner to develop a comic strip for these inserts. The strip that Eisner created was The Spirit.

The Spirit was criminologist Denny Colt. Mistakenly thought dead after an attempt on life, Colt used his supposed death to his advantage, assuming the identity of The Spirit to fight crime. It was in the pages of The Spirit that Eisner introduced Lady Luck, one of the earliest female costumed characters. She soon got her own comic strip.

The Spirit proved very successful, so that naturally the newspaper strips were reprinted in Quality comic books. Eisner's original run on The Spirit ended in 1942 when he was draughted. Eisner was stationed in Washington D. C. where he practised his art in the service of his country. He created "Joe Dope," a comic strip through which Jeep maintenace was taught to servicemen. He also edited the army journal Firepower.

Demobilised in 1946, Eisner returned to The Spirit. For the next four years Eisner took The Spirit where no comic strip or comic book had been before. Rather than supervillains, The Spirit fought petty hoodlums and cheap criminals. Eisner's style became more cinematic, with unsual angles and panel shapes. His stories became epic in length. Effectively, The Spirit became one of the few adult strips around.

Eisner left The Spirit in 1950 to found the American Visual Corporation, which produced various magazines and manuals. His creation, The Spirit, now in others' hands, ended in 1952.

Eisner may well have been forgotten by all but comic book and comic strip fans had it not been for Jules Feiffer. In 1965, The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer was published. The Great Comic Book Heroes was not only a nostalgic look back at the Golden Age superheroes, but the first book to examine the medium with any amount of seriousness. Feiffer singled Eisner out for praise and included, among the other comic book stories reprinted in the book, one featuring The Spirit. Soon Eisner found himself deluged with requests for The Spirit's return.

Eisner wrote new Spirit stories for much of the Seventies. In 1978 Einser invented the graphic novel with the publication of A Contract with God. In fact, it was Eisner who coined the term "graphic novel." Thereafter Eisner produced at least one graphic novel each year.

Will Eisner was among the earliest proponets of comic books as a literary form. While many of his contemporaries in the Thirties were wanting to break into magazine illustration, Eisner was already looking at the comic book as an artform. He wrote the book Comics & Sequential Art in which he outlined the principles telling stories in comic books. Besides expressing his own ideas and theories on the artform, Eisner argues for its acceptance as an artform. Eisner wrote another book, Graphic Storytelling, which expands upon the ideas he expressed in Comics & Sequential Art.

Eisner was respected as an innovator in the field of comic books. Aside from the many important characters he had created, he had revolutionised the field. Eisner was the first artist to use panels with no dialogue or even thought balloons in which a character's facial expression showed how he or she felt. Einser was the first to address serious issues in the form of a comic book. He was the first to vary panel size, angles, and even lettering to suit the story at hand. With Iger he was the first to establish a comic strip studio. And as pointed out, he also invented the graphic novel. Is it any wonder that the comic book industry's equivalent of the Oscar or the Emmy is called the Eisner?

As a comic book fan, it is impossible to estimate the influence Will Eisner has had on my life. I read The Spirit as a child, as well as stories featuring other characters he had created. As an adult I read his grahpic novels, as well as Comics & Sequential Art. Even had I read nothing written and drawn by Eisner, it would be hard to escape his influence. Virtually every comic book, every graphic novel published today shows his influence in some way. It is for that reason that I am very saddened by his passing. It means that Plot, to be published later this year, will be his last work. It is doubtful that comic books will ever see one as great as Eisner.

Sunday, 9 January 2005

Computer Games

I saw on Amazon that Sid Meier's Pirates! is now out. I never really played the original version of Pirates much, although I played plenty of other games Sid Meier created, and other computer games as well.

In fact, one of the first computer games I ever played was Civlization. The computer game was based on the popular board game of the same name. As in the board game, one selects a particular civilisation which one will build from the Stone Age to Space Age. One competed with other civilisations, played by the computer (unless one had the multiplayer version of the game...), with whom one could even go to war. It was essentially a game of strategy, very fun but not particuarly easy.

As much as I loved Civilization, I loved Civlization II even more. Civ II was essentially a more advanced version of the game, which even allowed one to play different scenarios (such as the Crusades or World War I). It was even harder than Civilization, but even more fun. A few years ago a Civlization III was produced, but I never did care for it. It didn't seem nearly as fun as either Civilization or Civ II.

Sid Meier also created a game called Colonization. It was like Civlization in many ways, only instead of creating a civilisation, one was trying to colonise the Americas. Complicating this task were the Natives and other countries attempting colonisation. It was also a fun game and considerably easier than any of the Civilization games.

I also enjoyed SimCity, a game which is still quite popular. In Sim City, one essentially built and ran a city. It could be a difficult game, especially when it came to polution down and the population happy. I also enjoyed the other "Sim" games. SimEarth allowed one to build a planet. Perhaps becuase of this, it was a lot harder than SimCity. It seems like my worlds always overheated or blew up. SimFarm was fun as well--one basically just ran a farm. It was also not that difficult. I never played The Sims, which seems to be the most popular of the games that Maxis has produced. It just doesn't look that interesting to me.

One of my favourite games was Cuthroats!. Unfortunately, it is no longer in production. In Cuthroats!, one was essentially the captain of a pirate ship. It involved a good deal of strategy and even a bit of micromanagement. One had to keep his or her crew happy, which meant getting as much booty as possible while keeping plenty of rum and food in stock. It is a shame that this game is out of print, as it was probably the most enjoyable game I ever played short of Civlization II.

Of course, I played plenty of role playing games, but I have yet to play EverQuest. Quite simply, my computer won't handle it. I have heard from a very reliable and lovely source, however, that it is a very enjoyable game. Indeed, there are times I wonder that she isn't addicted to it...

At the moment I have no games on my computer. With its tiny hard drive and its advanced age (the machine is six years old), it doesn't seem the wise thing to do. But I rather suspect that when I get a new computer, I probably will put some games on it--Sid Meier's Pirates!, EverQuest, SimCity, and one of the Civ games at least...