Saturday, August 8, 2009

Screenwriter and Director John Hughes R.I.P.

John Hughes, the screenwriter and director of such films as Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, passed on Thursday at the age of 59. The cause was a heart attack.

John Hughes was born in Lansing, Michigan on February 18, 1950. When he was thirteen years old his family moved to Northbrook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He graduated from Glenbrook North High School there in 1968. He attended the University of Arizona for a time before dropping out, after which he went into advertising. While still in advertising he would visit the offices of the National Lampoon while in New York City, eventually being published in the magazine and later part of its staff. It was while he was on staff that he wrote his first screenplay National Lampoon's Class Reunion. While National Lampoon's Class Reunion would not do particularly well at the box office, his next screenplays would prove successful: Mr. Mom and National Lampoon's Vacation.

It was with Sixteen Candles in 1984 that John Hughes made his directorial debut. It was also the beginning of a string of hits from Hughes that would last through the Eighties. Films such as Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Uncle Buck all did well at the box office. Hughes also continued writing screenplays for films which he did not direct, among them Christmas Vacation and Home Alone.

While Hughes directed no more films after Curly Sue in 1991, he continued churning out screenplays for such films as Beethoven (as Edmond Dantes), 101 Dalmations, and Just Visiting.

Unlike many, I cannot say I was a huge fan of John Hughes' films. He either wrote or directed a few films that I actually disliked. That having been said, he also wrote or directed some films which I dearly love. When John Hughes was at his best, he was absolutely brilliant. Indeed, he either directed some of the few comedies made after 1980 that I found hysterically funny. Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Home Alone all had me laughing through most of the movie. And there can be no doubt that as both a screenwriter and director, John Hughes knew what audiences wanted. Very few of the films that he either wrote or directed (or both) ever bombed at the box office. There can be little wonder that he is so identified with the decade of the Eighties. It was when he was at the peak of his success. It is sad to know that he is gone now, and at such a young age.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Screenwriter Budd Schulberg Passes On

Screenwriter and novellist Budd Schulberg passed Wednesday at the age of 95.

Budd Schulberg was born March 24, 1917 in New York City. As his father B. P. Schulberg would be the head of production at Paramount, he would grow up in Hollywood. Schulberg's mother was literary agent Adeline Jaffe, whose brother was legendary agent and producer Sam Jaffe. Schulberg attended Darmouth, from which he graduated in 1936 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Budd Schulberg began his career at Paramount in 1937 as a publicist. It was also that year that he did uncredited work on the screenplay for A Star is Born and Nothing Sacred. Schulberg was released from Paramount after the failure of Winter Carnival, for which he wrote the screenplay. Schulberg's experiences in Hollywood provided the basis for his novel, What Makes Sammy Run, published in 1941.

During World War II Budd Schulberg made propaganda films for the Office of Strategic Services and the War Department with director John Ford. He also wrote the stories for several films. He of the people who put together evidence against the Nazis for the Nuremberg trials, even arresting filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. In 1947 his novel The Harder They Fall was published, based loosely on the career of boxer Primo Carnera.

The Fifties would see Budd Schulberg's two best known films. On the Waterfront was released in 1954, for which he won the Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay and the WGA Award (screen) for Best Written American Drama. In 1957 the movie Face in the Crowd was released, which centred on an Arkansas hayseed who becomes a megastar (played by Andy Griffith).

It was in the Fifties that Schulberg also wrote for various anthology TV shows, such as Sunday Showcase and General Electric Theatre. He wrote several more books, including The Disenchanted, Swan Watch (with his wife, actress Geraldine Brooks), and Everything That Moves.

Although his career as a screenwriter was not long, Budd Schulberg must rank among the greatest screenwriters of all time. On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd have two of the best screenplays of all time. He had a knack for dealing with issues that could be difficult or even controversial (the power of the mob over the New York docks, media's ability to create celebrities) in a way that was entertaining and yet never shallow. Indeed, what made both On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd such great films was Schulberg's writing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Marvel Acquires Marvelman. Or Mirarcleman, if You Prefer

Among the biggest announcements made at this year's San Diego Comic-Con International was that Marvel Comics has acquired the publishing rights to Marvelman, also known in the United States as Miracleman. While I have no real sentimental attachment to the character, I must admit that it does not make me particularly happy.

For those of you who have never heard of Marvelman, the character may well be the most famous superhero to merge from the United Kingdom, at least here in the United States. He also has a rather interesting history. Marvelman's origins go back to the character of Captain Marvel, Fawcett Publications' best selling superhero and one of the best selling characters during the Golden Age of Comics. It was only a little over year after Captain Marvel had first appeared that Detective Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would later become DC Comics) sued Fawcett, contending that Captain Marvel infringed on the character of Superman. The lawsuit would literally take years, until at last, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the famous Judge Learned Hand ruled in favour of National Periodical Publications (as Detective Comics Inc. was now known) and sent the case back to the appellate court to assess damages. It was then that Fawcett Publications simply decided to settle out of court. Not only did Fawcett pay National $400,000 in damages, but they agreed to cease publishing any and all Captain Marvel titles. Fawcett then not only cancelled every single Captain Marvel title, but stopped publishing comic books altogether.

Like Superman, Captain Marvel was a character who was popular outside the United States. In the United Kingdom L. Miller & Sons, Limited had held the licence to publish Fawcett's titles since 1942. Over the years they had reprinted many Fawcett titles in the UK, the most popular of which were the Captain Marvel titles. When Fawcett ceased publishing comic books, then, L. Miller & Sons, Limited faced losing a lucrative income, which ultimately could lead to financial disaster. Fortunately, publisher Len Miller developed a solution. He turned to writer/artist Mick Anglo to create a character who was similar enough to Captain Marvel to capitalise on the World's Mightiest Mortal's popularity, but different enough from either Captain Marvel or Superman to avoid a lawsuit from National Periodical Publications. It was on January 24, 1954, that Marvelman made his first appearance.

In many ways Marvelman was similar enough to Captain Marvel to nearly be considered plagiarism. Marvelman was Micky Moran, a copy boy for the Daily Bugle. He had obtained his powers from a mysterious astrophysicist named Guntag Barghelt, who somehow had power over the "key harmonic" of the cosmos. Barghelt treated Moran in a strange machine, after which the boy had the power to transform in Marvelman simply by saying the word kimota. Like Captain Marvel, Marvelman would have his own "family" of related superheroes. "Young Marvelman" was Dicky Dauntless, a delivery boy, while "Kid Marvelman", who was nine year old Johnny Bates. Various Marvelman titles would be published regularly until February 1963.

Marvelman would be revived 1982 in the pages of Warrior, which featured a darker, more adult Marvelman series written by Alan Moore. The series was successful enough to see interest in the United States. Unfortunately, this would also lead to Marvelman's first legal difficulties. By the Eighties Marvel Comics owned the trademark to the word "Marvel" with regards to comic books. It was because of pressure from Marvel that the Marvelman stories would be reprinted with the name "Miracleman" in the United States. Initially published by Pacific Comics, Eclipse Comics would take over the publishing the character after that company's collapse. Once the Warrior stories ran out, Eclipse started publishing original stories by Alan Moore. Neil Gaiman would take over after Moore left the series. Gaiman would continue the series until 1992. It would be in the Nineties that Marvelman/Miracleman would become part of a battle over who precisely owned the character between Todd McFarlane (who bought Elcipse's assets, who got the rights from Dez Skinn of Warrior publisher Quality Communications, whose right to the character was always a bit of a question...) and Neil Gaiman (who got Alan Moore's share of the rights to the character, who got his share from Dez get the picture...).

Regardless of the legal battle over ownership of Marvelman, it would appear that creator Mick Anglo actually owned the character and had never relinquished his rights. As a result Marvel Comics began negotiations with him in 2007 to purchase Marvelman. The company plans to publish new Marvelman stories as early as next year.

As I said earlier, in some respects this does not please me. As I have read and enjoyed a few Marvelman stories in my time, I do like the idea that the character will see print again. And I am remain open minded as to how Marvel might deal with the character. My problem with Marvel's purchase of Marvelman comes down to the simple fact that the majority of classic superheroes have belonged to only two companies for the past forty years. Since the Sixties, DC and Marvel have had a near monopoly on superheroes in comic books. What is more, DC owns most of them.

Sadly, the history of the comic book industry reflects the history of other industries in the United States, with smaller companies eventually being bought by larger ones. It was in 1945 that Jack Liebowitz bought out Max Gaines' shares in All-American Comics, thus making that company officially part of its sister company, Detective Comics Inc. (which Liebowitz also co-owned). The new company would be known as National Comics, which would become the corporation National Periodical Publications, but better known as DC Comics (its official name as of the late Seventies). In 1956 Everett M. "Busy" Arnold would sell Quality Comics to DC, thus giving DC control of such classic characters as Plastic Man and Blackhawk. In 1983 Charlton Comics sold out to DC, giving the company the rights to The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and The Question. In 1991 Fawcett, the company which DC sued to the point of closing their comic book line, would also sell the rights to their characters, giving DC such properties as Captain Marvel, Bulletman, Ibis the Invincible, and so on.

Marvel Comics has not made nearly as many acquisitions over the year as DC. Much of this is due to the fact that, as hard as it is to believe, Marvel was not that major a player in the Golden Age and by the Fifties was struggling to survive. In fact, if it was not for Stan Lee striking lightning with The Fantastic Four and the characters who followed in its wake, it seems likely Marvel might not exist today. Regardless, Marvelman is not the first property Marvel has purchased. In 1994 Marvel Comics bought out Malibu Comics Entertainment, Inc., at the time the fourth largest comic book company in the United States. This gave Marvel the rights to Malibu's revival of the various Golden Age Centaur characters (who had lapsed into public domain), such as Amazing Man, Airman, Man of War, and others.

In the end, it would seem that the majority of classic superheroes are owned by DC or Marvel. Archie Comics still owns its classic Golden Age characters, although they have licensed the rights to the characters (again) to DC. A few others superheroes are owned by their creators. This is a stark contrast to the Golden Age of Comics Books, during which time there were several different companies which published superheroes: All-American, Detective Comics, Fawcett, Fox, Harvey Comics, Marvel (actually a number of different companies, all owned by Martin Goodman, which would become the modern day Marvel Comics--generally referred to as Timely by modern fans), MLJ (now Archie Comics), Quality, Nedor, and yet others. The competition between these companies produced both a number of classic characters (Captain Marvel, The Flash, The Blue Beetle, The Black Cat, The Human Torch, The Shield, Plastic Man, and so on) and a wide diversity of styles. After the Golden Age many of these companies went under, so that by the Silver Age only a few remained. It was during the Silver Age that DC Comics (always the biggest comic book company) became more powerful and Marvel Comics rose to power. Since then there has been less diversity in the world of comic books. While several independent publishers arose in the Eighties (many of which would go under) and others have since then, there is still less diversity in comic books than there was in the Golden Age.

This is the reason I am not overly thrilled with Marvel now owning Marvelman. It means that one of the two biggest comic book companies, who already own the bulk of classic characters, now have yet another one. I would have much preferred to have seen an independent publisher, such as Dark Horse, get the rights. While I do think that Marvel will do right by the character, in hope of more diversity in the ocmic book industry, I would rather someone else (other than DC) had acquired the character