Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Late Great Gene Colan

Legendary comic book artist Gene Colan, know for his work Marvel's Tomb of Dracula and Howard the Duck, passed on 23 June 2011 at the age of 84. The cause was complications from cancer and liver disease.

Gene Colan was born Eugene Jules Colan in The Bronx on on 1 September 1926. He grew up in Manhattan. He studied at the Art Students League of New York. He began his career in comic books in 1944, working on Fiction House's Wings Comics. He tried to enlist in the Marines, but withdrawn from the Corps by his father as he was too young. Once he came of age he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served in the Philippines.

After demobilisation in 1946 Gene Colan went to work for the company later known as Marvel Comics. There he worked on Captain America Comics and other titles. When the company let much of its staff go in 1948 due to a decline in sales, he went to work as a freelancer. He illustrated many stories for National Periodical Publications' (now DC Comics) various war titles, including Our Army At War and All American Men at War. As a freelancer who would continue to work on war titles for the company that would become Marvel Comics as well.

It was during the Silver Age of Comic Books (roughly 1956 to 1969) that Gene Colan came into his own. As a freelancer at National Periodical Publication he worked on many of their romance titles. At Marvel Comics he was the initial artist on the revival of The Sub-Mariner in Tales to Astonish and took over from Don Heck on Iron-Man in Tales of Suspense. He would work on many of Marvel Comics' best known superheroes, including Captain America, Daredevil, and Dr. Strange. While other artists working for Marvel Comics would try to emulate the styles of Jack Kirby or Steve Dikto, Gene Colan developed his own style. A fan of motion pictures for his entire life, he had a very cinematic style, very much influenced by film noir.

It was while at Marvel Comics that Gene Colan would make history twice. The first time was in 1969 when he and Stan Lee created The Falcon, one of the earliest African-American heroes, in the pages of Captain America. In 1972, with inker Tom Palmer, Mr. Colan went to work on The Tomb of Dracula, which placed the legendary vampire in modern day America. Mr. Colan would remain the critically acclaimed series for most of its run. He also illustrated most of the run of the legendary series Howard the Duck.

In the Eighties Gene Colan would go back to work for DC Comics. From 1982 to 1986 he was the primary artist for the "Batman" feature, illustrating it both in Batman and Detective Comics.  At DC he would also work on Wonder Woman, Silverblade, Night Force, Jemm Son of Saturn, and The Spectre In the Eighties Mr. Colan would also work for Archie Comics and the independent Eclipse Comics.

Gene Colan would return to Marvel for work on a revival of The Tomb of Dracula, Blade, and Captain America. He also worked for Dark Horse Comics on the Buffy the Vampire series and did some of the insert artwork for Rob Zombie's album Hellbilly Deluxe.

Gene Colan had an inordinately long career, starting in 1944 and ending in 2009. There can be no doubt for the reason for. Mr. Colan's long career. Quite simply, he was among the greatest comic book illustrators of all time. A stickler for detail, Gene Colan modelled his artwork on reality, using actor Jack Palance as his model for Dracula (this was before Mr. Palance was cast as the vampire in the Dan Curtis television movie) and actually going to the police once so he could look at a .38 for the illustration of a handgun. Beyond his attention to detail, Gene Colan had a highly cinematic style of artwork. Influenced by motion pictures, his artwork tended not only to be realistic, but very flowing as well. He was obviously a student of film noir, as he manipulated light and shadow as no other artist had before him. This made him ideal for his work on The Tomb of Dracula, which in his hands looked like a Hammer horror film on paper. While Gene Colan would influence generations of artists to come, his work remains unique to this day. Unwilling to adapt to the styles of others and having created own distinct style, Gene Colan remains one of the greatest comic book illustrators of all time.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Late Great Peter Falk

Peter Falk, the actor best known for playing rumpled television detective Lt. Columbo and who appeared in films ranging from Pocketful of Miracles (1961) to The Great Race (1965) to The Princess Bride (1987), passed Thursday, 23 June 2011 at the age of 83. For the past few years he had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Peter Falk was born pm 26 September 1927 in Manhattan, New York. For a while when Mr. Falk was very young his family lived in The Bronx, but it was not long before the family moved to Ossining, New York where Mr. Falk grew up. His first appearance on stage was when he was only twelve, when he appeared in a production off Pirates of Penzance at camp (where, coincidentally, one of his camp counsellors was lifelong friend and fellow future actor Ross Martin). He attended Ossining High School where he excelled as an athlete, despite having only one eye (his right eye was removed at age three due to a retinoblastoma and he afterwards wore a glass eye).  After high school he attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He dropped out to enlist in the Armed Forces, but was classified 4-F due to having but one eye, whereupon he joined the Merchant Marine. Afterwards he attended the New School for Social Research in New York City where he received a bachelor's degree in political science. He then attended Syracuse University where he received a master's degree in public administration.

After leaving Syracuse University Mr. Falk took a position with the Connecticut budget bureau as an efficiency expert. It was while in Connecticut that he joined an acting troupe called the Mark Twain Masquers based out of Hartford. He studied acting under Eva Le Gallienne at the White Barn Theatre in Westport.  It was then at the age of 29 that he moved to New York City to become an actor full time. His professional début was in an off Broadway production of Molière’s Don Juan in 1956. He also made his début on Brodway in a production of Saint Joan. In 1957 he appeared in an off Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh. It was also that year that he first appeared on television, appearing in episodes of Robert Montgomery Presents, Camera Three, and Studio One.

The late Fifties would be a very busy time for Peter Falk as an actor. On Broadway he appeared in Diary of a Scoundrel. On television he appeared in episodes of such shows as  Armstrong Circle Theatre, Kraft Theatre, Decoy, and Have Gun--Will Travel. He made his movie début in 1958 in Wind Across the Everglades. He appeared in the films The Bloody Brood (1959), Pretty Boy Floyd (1960), and Murder Inc. (1960).  For his role in Murder Inc. he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but lost to Peter Ustinov for his role in Spartacus (1960).

The Sixties would see Peter Falk very much in demand, as he would be for the rest of his career. On Broadway he appeared in The Passion of Josef D in 1964. On television he starred in the lead role of the short lived series The Trials of O'Brien, which ran from 1965 to 1966. He guest starred on such shows as The Aquanauts, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Naked City, The Dick Powell Theatre, Wagon Train, and The Red Skelton Hour. In 1967 he appeared in the television movie, historic Prescription: Murder, historic as the first time Peter Falk played Lt. Columbo. He appeared in such films as Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Pressure Point (1962), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), The Great Race  (1965), Penelope (1966), Too Many Thieves (1967), Machine Gun Mccain (1967), Castle Keep (1969), and Husbands. He received a second Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his part in Pocketful of Miracles.

The Seventies see Peter Falk assume his most famous role on a regular basis, appearing in the lead role on the series Columbo. Lt. Columbo was a dishevelled detective whose bumbling demeanour hid a razor sharp mind. As a result, the culprits of the murders on the show always underestimated Columbo, who always knew they had a committed the crime--for him it was simply a matter of figuring out how. One of the rotating series of the umbrella series The NBC Mystery Movie, Columbo would outlive it by a long shot. It ran on and off from 1971 to 2003. On television Mr. Falk would also guest star on The Name of the Game. He appeared in such movies as A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Murder by Death (1976), Mikey and Nick (1976), The Cheap Detective (1978), The Brinks Job (1978), and The In-Laws (1979).  On Broadway he appeared in The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

Peter Falk would work less from the Eighties to the Naughts, although he was still very much in demand. He appeared in the films The Great Muppet Caper (1981), All the Marbles (1981), Big Trouble (1986), Der Himmel über Berlin (1987 Wings of Desire), Happy New Year (1987), The Princess Bride (1987), In the Spirit (1990), Cops n Robbers (1995), Roommates (1997), Made (2001), Undisputed (2003), Three Days to Vegas (2007), Next (2007), and American Cowslip (2009). He continued to appear on television as Columbo, as well in such telefilms as A Town Without Christmas, Wilder Days, and Finding John Christmas.

This had been one of the harder eulogies I have ever had to write. Peter Falk numbered among my favourite actors of all time, and not simply because he played my favourite television detective. Peter Falk was an incredibly talented actor who could play large variety of roles. Indeed, even after playing Lt. Columbo for years, Peter Falk was never typecast because he was so flexible as an actor. He could play a hardened killer, as he did in Murder Inc., or he could play a loving if curmudgeonly grandfather (and narrator of the story) in The Princess Bride. He could play a sergeant in the Army more interested in making love than war (Castle Keep) or a CIA agent with a precarious grasp of his sanity (The In-Laws). He was equally adept at both comedy and drama. Indeed, I suspect Peter Falk was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Pocketful of Miracles because he simply acted circles around even the more experienced members of the cast.

Of course, there can be no denying that Peter Falk was best known for playing Lt. Columbo on the series Columbo on and off for thirty years. Indeed, while Peter Falk was not the first actor to play the rumpled detective (that would be Bert Freed in the episode "Enough Rope" of The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960), Peter Falk made the role all his own. Indeed, if many of the obituaries in the mainstream press read more like obituaries for Lt. Columbo than Peter Falk, perhaps it was because Mr. Falk was so great in the role that it is inconceivable anyone else could play it. In part this may be because Lt. Columbo and Mr. Falk were in many ways alike. Lt. Columbo was a rumpled detective and a bit of a bumbler whom the murderers on the show never suspected was a brilliant detective. Peter Falk was an ordinary looking guy--hardly a matinee idol--who possessed an acting talent that surpassed many other actors. Both Lt. Columbo and Peter Falk could fool and surprise individuals who never suspected that they were both incredibly remarkable men.

Indeed, in playing Lt. Columbo Peter Falk created what may be one of the five television greatest characters of all time. That Peter Falk would pour his incredible talent and so much energy into a character on a TV series also shows why Mr. Falk was such a great actor. Unlike many actors, Mr. Falk was not a snob. Even though he worked with such directors as Frank Capra, Blake Edwards, and John Cassavetes, he would take work in television and devoted the same attention to his craft that he did in feature films. What is more, Mr. Falk was not simply a great talent, but reportedly a true gentleman as well. When singer Johnny Cash guest starred on Columbo he recalled how kind Mr. Falk was to him despite his inexperience in acting. In Cash: The Autobiography he wrote, "Peter Falk was good to me. I wasn't at all confident about handling a dramatic role, and every day he helped me in all kinds of little ways." Peter Falk was one of the great acting talents in both movies and television, beloved by those with whom he worked and audiences alike. He may be best remembered as Lt. Columbo, but he did so much more.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In Defence of Green Lantern (2011)

I generally do not review new movies in this blog, but this is an instance in which I feel I must make an exception. Quite simply, I think Green Lantern (2011), the movie starring Ryan Reynolds as the Emerald Crusader, has not been given its due by critics and fans alike. The movie has received several reviews of which I feel it was quite undeserving.

As a matter of full disclosure, I must confess that I am a fan of the superhero Green Lantern. While I prefer the Green Lantern of the Golden Age of Comics, Alan Scott, I have always been fond of the Green Lantern of the Silver Age, Hal Jordan (the one who's portrayed in the movie) as well. In fact, Green Lantern is my second favourite superhero after Batman. As a child I read everything from the John Broome/Gil Kane stories published before I was born to the later stories by the team of  Denny O'Neil and Neil Adams, and yet others. If anyone was predisposed to be overly critical of this movie, it would be me. After all, when it comes to superhero movies, no one can be more critical than the fans of that particular superhero.

Indeed, while I often said that Green Lantern was the movie to which I was looking forward the most this summer, there was a good part of me that was nervous. The trailers did little to ease my mind, as they concentrated mostly on special effects and humour. I was fully prepared to hate this movie. Fortunately, having seen it, I must say that I would not have to.

By no means is Green Lantern a great film, but by no means is it a bad film either. It is very much a good film, one that I call a "popcorn movie." It may not have much depth, but it succeeds in being entertaining. Green Lantern moves at a good pace and, except for some exposition at the beginning of the film, it is almost never slow. The film's pace is helped greatly by Oscar nominated editor Stuart Baird, who seamlessly cuts between scenes on Oa and on Earth, scenes with Hal Jordan and scenes with Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), without ever losing the viewer in the process. While Green Lantern has some very fine editing, the quality of Martin Campbell's direction is much as it was on his many previous films (GoldenEye, Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro), good, but nothing remarkable.

As to the cast, I thought for they did a fine job for the most part. I thought Ryan Reynolds made a fine Hal Jordan, a character who requires a lighter touch than Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, or even Tony Stark (that's Iron Man, for the non-comic book crowd). Similarly, I thought Blake Lively did a good job as Jordan's love interest and boss Carol Ferris. I thought Peter Sarsgaard played Hector Hammond a bit over the top, but then this seems to be the rule in playing supervillains. It certainly did not detract from the movie.

Of course, special effects can sink a superhero film if they are not convincing. The days when audiences would suspend disbelief at a man in a rubber suit are long past. Fortunately, the special effects on Green Lantern are very well done. The CGI is convincing except in instances so few that they do not detract from the movie.

So far I have discussed Green Lantern simply from the perspective of a summer blockbuster, but it must also be kept in mind that it was based on a popular comic book character. Having read many of the early John Broome/Gil Kane stories, I can say that the movie captures the flavour of those stories quite well. There is an even balance between space opera action and earthbound action, and plenty of ring slinging to be had. Oh, the film does depart in some ways from the mythos established in the comic books, but no more than many other comic book films have. My fellow Green Lantern fans will be happy that members of the Green Lantern Corps Tomar Re and Kilowog both appear in the film.

One thing I did find disappointing about the film is that nowhere in the credits is credit given to the creators of Green Lantern: Bill Finger and Martin Nodell, who in creating the Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott came up with the very concept of a superhero with a very special ring, and John Broome and Gil Kane, who created the Silver Age Green Lantern Hal Jordan. Quite honestly, DC Comics and Warner Brothers should give creators credit where credit is due.

In the end, when I left the theatre, I felt satisfied and I felt that I got my money's worth. Green Lantern is hardly a great film, but then I was not expecting Watchmen (2009) or The Dark Knight (2008). It certainly was not the catastrophe some critics and even some fans had made it out to be. It was simply a good, popcorn movie to enjoy on a hot summer afternoon, the sort of empty headed, good clean fun one rarely sees in superhero movies these days. It was hardly deserving of the venom so many critics directed towards it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons R.I.P.

Clarence Clemons, long time saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, passed on 18 June 2011 at the age of 69. The cause was complications from a stroke.

Clarence Clemons was born on 11 January 1942 in Norfolk, Virginia. His father bought him a saxophone for his birthday when he was 9 years old and also paid for him to learn to play it. Starting with alto saxophone, he switched to baritone saxophone in high school, where he played in the jazz band. He attended Maryland State College on both football and music scholarships. Mr. Clemons would enter a recording studio while still very young, recording Tyrone Ashley's Funky Music Machine, a band from Plainfield, New Jersey, when he was only 18. While in college he joined the band The Vibratones, which lasted from 1961 to 1965.

By the late Sixties Clarence Clemons would be performing with Norman Seldin & The Joyful Noyze, a New Jersey band which recorded a self titled album in 1969. He was still playing with them when, according to legend, in September 1971 that Clarence Clemons first met Bruce Springsteen. Regardless, afterwards Mr. Clemons join Mr. Springsteen's band and would perform on Bruce Springsteen's debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. As part of The E Street Band, Mr.Clemons would appear on every Bruce Springsteen (over twenty at all). Clarence Clemons would have his own projects, recording as "Clarence Clemons and The Red Bank Rockers" for the 1985 album Rescue, recording three solo albums, and recording three more albums as Clarence Clemons and the Temple of Soul. He would also record with Gary U. S. Bonds, Ringo Starr, Zucherro, and others.

 There can be no doubt that Clarence Clemons was one of the greatest rock saxophonists of all time. In an era when guitarists were most often the idols, Mr. Clemons carved a niche for himself. In fact, much of what set Bruce Springsteen's music apart from other artists was Clarence Clemons powerful saxophone. Clarence Clemons was central to the sound of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, to the point that it seems impossible that he will be able to be replaced. Clarence Clemons was unique. As a result the music of Bruce Springsteen might never sound the same again.