Saturday’s Comfort Zone Wrapup
Finally, our conclusion.
Here’s part one, part two, and part three. I really had intended, when I first outlined this, to keep it to one or at most two columns. What can I say? Comfort food’s a staple around here lately. Between cold and flu season, and then hosting our godson Phenix for a couple of days, the old standbys have been in heavy rotation a lot.
Anyway, these are the last ones — my go-to list of SF, fantasy, and superhero comics and books and movies that I never get tired of.
Let me reiterate that these aren’t my picks for the best in their genre, or even my all-time favorites, exactly. (Although many of them are favorites of mine.) One of the reasons I started writing about ‘comfort food’ entertainment was to try and explain the idea a little better. The defining characteristic of these works is they aren’t particularly innovative in an artistic sense — they’re hitting genre beats in a classic way, there’s nothing in them that’s going to set the world on fire. But at the same time, they’re doing it so well, so reliably, that even when you can see a plot development coming a mile off it’s okay. Because you enjoy it so much that you just don’t care, it’s like greeting an old friend.
What I notice, as I write these columns, is that when I just want something relaxing I tend to go back to my ‘firsts.’ For example, my first encounters with science fiction were Irwin Allen’s various television efforts and the original Star Trek.
So my preferred comfort SF tends to be something heavy on the adventure, enough science fiction in it to be fun but not enough that it’s taxing. For example, The Omega Man is comfort food. 2001: A Space Odyssey is not.
All of this is by way of explaining why my comfort picks tend to be… well, quality-challenged, one might say. Very few of these works are going to end up on anyone’s “Best Of” lists, especially in science fiction or fantasy circles (superhero fans are more forgiving.) But I still love them. These are the stories I pull off the shelf when I just want to relax, or when I need something to cheer me up on a bad day.
There are lots of great science fiction movies out there, some real classics. But for pure enjoyment, I keep coming back to the aforementioned Omega Man.
Objectively, I couldn’t tell you why. It’s not a good adaptation of I Am Legend. It’s terribly dated– ironically, mostly from its effort to appear fresh and hip. It’s hammy and pretentious and the allegory comes off as painfully heavy-handed.
But… I love it in a way that I just don’t The Last Man on Earth, which is by the way a much better movie, or even the original Matheson novel I Am Legend which I think is a brilliant book. The thing is, neither one of those are really what I’d call fun. They’re intense stories that demand a lot from the audience. They’re Art. Compared to those, The Omega Man is cheese. But it’s really tasty cheese.
Maybe it’s the era – The Omega Man is a very seventies movie, and so are my other SF picks, come to think of it.
Between the cancellation of the original Star Trek in 1969 and 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Gene Roddenberry tried his hand at four other science fiction and fantasy TV series pilots. In the olden days, these would air as made-for-TV movies and I loved every one of them.
Technically, the first one he tried twice. Genesis II was the story of Dylan Hunt, a man from our time who was trapped in a cavern during a suspended animation experiment, revived a couple of centuries later into a world trying to recover from nuclear war. Alex Cord did well enough as Hunt, and he was ably supported by Ted Cassidy as Isiah, the white savage as well as the young Mariette Hartley as the hot mutant babe Lyra-A.
That one aired on CBS, and they ended up picking up the Planet of the Apes TV series instead. The following year we saw Planet Earth, a somewhat re-imagined sequel (It was roughly the same relationship the new Edward Norton Hulk movie had to the Eric Bana one, if that helps you.) This one was on ABC.
Honestly? I like this one better than Genesis II even though, again, objectively Genesis II is the better movie.
For one thing, Planet Earth is simply more fun. Roddenberry was determined to prove to ABC that he still had what it took to do an action show, he was able to do a TV series that wasn’t just about Making A Statement about Humanity’s Bold Future. So the movie opens with a big action sequence between Dylan and his team and the killer mutant Kreegs (“A species obsessed with militarism and war!”) and goes on from there.
The cast is better too. The only holdovers from the first are Ted Cassidy, who was simply too cool to lose (The creator of Mr. Spock and Data knew a cult hero when he saw one) and of course Majel Roddenberry has a small role. But John Saxon is much better as Dylan Hunt than Alex Cord was, he brings more of that Jim Kirk swagger to it. And the late Janet Margolin is wonderful as the naive but determined Harper Smythe.
Diana Muldaur also does a nice job as the matriarch Marg, and on the whole everyone looks to be having much more fun than the cast of Genesis II. The gender-politics stuff is about as ham-handed as one would expect, but it does sort of work on a satirical level. (Here’s a clip.)
But the real draw of the thing is the old-school adventure vibe, especially the big fight at the end with Ted Cassidy and his exuberant warrior’s yell. It’s one of my favorite film fights ever. Most people remember Ted Cassidy as Lurch from The Addams Family, but for me he’ll always be Isiah.
This pilot didn’t sell either. ABC took one more swing at it, with Saxon and without Roddenberry, in an awful movie called Strange New World. We’ll just ignore that one.
I’m also very fond of the other two failed Gene Roddenberry TV series pilot movies from this time, Spectre and The Questor Tapes.
Spectre was an idea that predated The X-Files by a couple of decades.
It featured Robert Culp as the very Holmes-like occult investigator William Sebastian, and the late Gig Young as his even more Watson-like friend Dr. “Ham” Hamilton.
In their initial outing they are up against a demonic cult that worships the lizard-god Asmodeus, “Prince of Lechery.” With all of the vaguely unsettling Roddenberry riffs about sexual liberation and free love that you’d expect to be included. (Watch all these movies in a row and you are left with the overall impression that Gene Roddenberry had some weird ideas about women.) Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining little movie, there’s something very Hammer-esque about it.
The plot is a bit oddly-structured in places, but overall it holds up well, and Culp is always a treat. There’s also a very young John Hurt as a prissy Satanist type. I don’t know if a series would have worked, but it’s a fun movie.
The Questor Tapes is widely regarded as the best of the Roddenberry pilots from this era, and it’s easy to see why fans love it so. This story of an android and his search for his creator is very, very Trek-like. In fact it originally was going to star Leonard Nimoy as the android Questor, but Robert Foxworth got the job instead.
Most of the ideas Roddenberry is trying here he came back to with the character of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but this is quite a bit looser and more entertaining than the early episodes of that show ever were. Most of this is due to Foxworth’s mannered performance — I think he did it better than Nimoy would have, honestly — and additionally, Mike Farrell is simply charming as engineer Jerry Robinson.
These four films have all been convention bootleggers’ evergreens for decades, but Planet Earth and Genesis II are finally getting a legitimate DVD release from Warner Brothers Archive.
Sadly, nothing yet for the other two, but there are paperback novelizations a determined web surfer could probably track down.
The one by Dorothy Fontana for Questor is actually pretty good, and stayed in print for years after the movie was forgotten by TV viewers. Of course there are the bootleggers, but I can’t really recommend that option. I think the entirety of Questor is on YouTube in ten-minute chunks, as well.
The whole Dylan Hunt/Genesis II concept eventually got retooled into Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, but that’s so far away from the original that it’s hardly applicable here.
Although I did like bits of the first and second seasons of that show okay, I always felt a vague sense of injustice that it was the version that actually succeeded. I wanted the John Saxon one with Ted Cassidy as Isiah, damn it. (I occasionally wonder if Saxon or Alex Cord actually ever guested on the Kevin Sorbo show. That would have been a really nerdy piece of stunt casting. Dueling Dylans!)
When I want that same kind of undemanding comfort-food entertainment in a fantasy comic, well, there’s really only one that does it for me.
Conan. I enjoy pretty much every version of Robert E. Howard’s mighty barbarian that has appeared in comics, and the current Dark Horse take on the character is a class act all the way. But my first choice is usually something from Savage Sword.
I love that Dark Horse is putting the Savage Sword Conan stories out in paperback, but honestly, I like the actual magazines. They’re exactly the right-size hunk of reading material when you just want to kill some time and relax — especially the earlier issues that also included fun text pieces, real articles and reviews, along with the comics. That was something I’m sorry to say doesn’t get included in the Dark Horse reprint trades, and it’s why I’m not as enthusiastic about them as I want to be. I liked the rhythm you got in the old Savage Sword magazine of a long lead story with Conan, followed by an article about Conan’s pulp appearances or the unlicensed Mexican Conan comic or Bran Mak Morn or something, and then a short second feature comic. It was a nice package.
I’m not terribly picky about who does it. I liked the Thomas/Buscema stuff best, but I also quite enjoyed Chuck Dixon’s Savage Sword work, and even the Michael Fleisher version of Conan is okay by me once in a while, though it’s my least favorite.
My filthy secret is that I’m just not a Conan purist. It comes back to that “first encounter” thing. See, I can appreciate that there are now nice Howard-only collections of the original Conan stories…
…but you know, after I bought those I ended up giving them away and spending an absurd amount of time prowling book dealers for the old Sphere paperbacks that are half Howard and half L. Sprague de Camp.
It just didn’t feel right unless it was one of those old paperbacks with the Frazetta covers, complete with the nerdy chronological notes and the lame pastiches and all the rest of it. Because that’s my Conan. I can’t help it.
(Yes, of course I can tell the difference between the authentic Howard Conan and the other stuff, and yes, Howard’s is easily the best. But I just like getting it in this package. Don’t judge me dammit!)
Truthfully, while we’re on the subject of lame knockoff versions of things, I’ve always thought that the best Conan movie anyone ever made was actually The Sword and the Sorcerer.
Lee Horsley as Talon isn’t nearly beefy enough but by God he nailed everything else. He’s simply so much better than Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the actual Conan movies that it’s ridiculous.
And the script is a fun mishmash of Howard’s Conan stories. You can see pieces of “The Scarlet Citadel,” “A Witch Shall Be Born,” “Black Colossus,” and a couple of others. It’s like a Greatest Hits collection. Pity that it was, you know, uh, plagiar — well, let’s say a devout homage, okay? –and not an actual Conan film.
Because everything else about this is just so… right. The plot, the atmosphere, everything, it feels so much more like a Conan story than either of the official Conan movies ever did.
Of course, there’s that howler of a plot hole near the end with the crucifixion scene — I really can’t believe that Talon could tear himself down off that crosstie, leap thirty feet in the air, grab his thirty-pound triple-bladed sword, and lay waste to Cromwell’s entire army while he still had gaping bloody holes in his hands. Not to mention the final duel and so on and so on, before waving at everyone and taking Kathleen Beller off to bed.
I mean, seriously, even Conan had to rest up after tearing himself off the cross in “A Witch Shall Be Born,” where that scene is stolen from. It’s just not something you bounce right back from.
But even with the idiocy of that one scene, even with its bizarre casting (Joe Regalbuto as a savage pirate mercenary? The guy from Murphy Brown? Seriously?) …I can’t help myself, I still love The Sword and the Sorcerer. I first saw it in the theater when I was in college — my friends and I must have gone three or four times — and I made it a point to grab it as soon as it showed up on home video.
The sequel’s finally getting made, too, featuring former Dylan Hunt (and, okay, Hercules and Kull) Kevin Sorbo.
It’s embarrassing how delighted I was to hear this. Lee Horsley actually came out of retirement for it, even; he makes a nice living writing Western novels, these days, but by God he put on the old loincloth again for this. I am so jazzed.
Well, I can see that this spun away from me again. I appreciate your forbearance, if you made it this far. Let’s see if I can wrap things up.
The last comfort-food genre pieces I wanted to talk about are superheroes, but really, in some sense almost all mainstream superhero stories have that reassuring sense of the expected about them. The hero is going to fight the villain and the good guys are going to win. Hell, during the years the Comics Code Authority was enforcing stuff, that was actually written into the rules.
That’s why the stories that break away from that template — Watchmen, Animal Man, Astro City, etc. — are usually hailed as genius and visionary. But the comfort-food stuff is where a lot of us find our inner fan at his most devoted.
For example, I’ve always been a Batman guy…. but in seventy years of published Bat stuff, that could mean a lot of things. So my favorite Batman stories tend to be the ones that fall into line with what I think Batman should be like.
Now, I can give you a lot of well-reasoned arguments about why I think Batman should be done this way and not that way, but really? At its core? I think it’s the comfort-food, don’t-screw-with-my-expectations factor. That certain satisfaction that comes with the nod of, “Yes. That’s how that needed to go.”
That’s why I adored Batman Begins so much when I first saw it. Not just that it was a good movie — although I think it was a terrific movie — but it was my Batman, absolutely. The Bronze Age model.
Started with Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Secret of the Waiting Graves,” peaked with Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, and finally ended with Doug Moench and Don Newton. That’s my guy. And he’s up there on the screen in Batman Begins, which is why that movie is so soothing for me. It really is like visiting an old friend for a couple of hours.
The challenge for most superhero writers of today is to evoke that happy feeling of recognition while at the same time not giving us something we’ve seen a zillion times before.
That’s really goddamn hard. And gets harder every year.
…but I digress. I could do a whole column about the current challenges of writing illusion-of-change superheroics — I may have even sort of done it once or twice already — but that’s not what this series of columns has been about. This was just where I wanted to mention a few of my personal favorite superhero stories that evoke that comfortable, quiet feeling of satisfied pleasure, that moment of Yes. Exactly.
For the classics, well, I already mentioned Batman. In particular, the movie Batman Begins and the collection Tales of the Demon.
And over at Marvel, there’s the Lee-Romita Spider-Man. In particular, the early part of that collaboration, #40 to #50.
Again, this is one of those things where intellectually I know the Ditko stuff was better — but the Romita stuff is mine.
The nice thing is that in 1992 Marvel put it all between two covers for me.
Marvel Masterworks volume 22, pictured above, is the only Marvel hardcover I own that I paid full price for when it came out. I had to have it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pulled it off the shelf to look up something or other and just ended up reading it again.
Comfort-food superheroics of a more modern vintage? That’s harder. Really the only book I can think of that gave me that “of course” vibe, that wasn’t particularly groundbreaking but nevertheless was completely satisfying, would be JLA under Grant Morrison and Mark Waid.
That was really a tour de force of looking exciting and fresh while underneath it all, the Justice League was just going back to basics — all the heroes in one story fighting menaces too big to handle alone. It was loud and fast and fun and had nice character bits and evoked the best of the old while still feeling new. It’s no wonder DC ran it into the ground. But while it was cooking, JLA was my go-to superhero book. Always reliable.
And there you have it. Those are my picks for the days when only an old favorite will do. Feel free to list your own in the comments below, or anything else you feel like mentioning for that matter.
Me, I think it’s time to dig out an old favorite and throw it in the DVD player. Maybe something from George Pal. This might be a night for Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. Or Doc Savage.
Or, hell, maybe both.
See you next week.