Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Suspending My Disbelief

I enjoy watching "24." Sure, it requires a major suspension of disbelief in order to accept everything that happens to Jack Bauer in the space of a day, but the show is, overall, an exciting roller coaster ride and the modern equivalent of the old movie serials.

It's important when watching the show to not think too much about how many times Jack is beat up, tortured, shot, stabbed and generally slammed around and then gets up and carries on as if nothing happened. You also need to ignore the fact that he never seems to eat, drink nor use the bathroom. (There have been articles saying that those things happen when he's off-camera. Along with his miraculous healing, I presume.)

Much ado was made in an early season when Jack's daughter Kim was lost in the California hills and was confronted by a coyote. Yes, this was a rather silly situation, but in the grand scheme of things, it was just one more cliffhanger.

Far more ridiculous, however, is the subplot this season that involves a woman working at CTU (Counter-Terrorism Unit) as a senior intel analyst. This woman has been blackmailed by a former boyfriend into using her computer abilities and access to engineer a break-in of a police department evidence warehouse. That she does it is par for the course for the series; there is a history of seemingly-intelligent characters making some pretty idiotic decisions in the show.

What pushes this particular scenario over the edge for me is the reason she is able to be blackmailed. Turns out that she is a convicted felon who has changed her identity. Her blackmailer is her former boyfriend. It certainly doesn't say much for CTU's ability to stop terrorism if they haven't even screened their employees well enough to find they have a criminal in a top position. Yes, CTU has had employees who've "turned bad" over the years, but, come on! Are they really expecting us to believe that this is the way such a government organization would be run?

Then again, eight years ago, they asked us to believe that an African-American would be President of the United States.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

So Bad It's...Well, Bad

Among the books I’ve accumulated over the past few years and am finally getting around to reading, there are the two collections of work by Fletcher Hanks, a writer/artist whose work appeared in such lesser-known titles as FANTASTIC COMICS in the late 1930s and early '40s. Reading in small doses – a couple of his stories go a long way – I have finished the first, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets.

Perhaps Hanks' most famous creation is Stardust, who is featured in about half the stories in this volume. Stardust is the smartest, most remarkable man in the history of the universe and he has turned his powers towards fighting crime on Earth, which he monitors from far out in space. In each story, some cabal of criminals plots the destruction of the United States or the world in one outlandish way or another. Indeed, the title of the book comes from the proclamation of one such villain.
For example, in one story, the criminals stop the Earth from rotating and all the people on the planet are flung out into space. Except for these criminals, of course, because they have chained themselves to the ground! Oh, and only the people go flying into space... animals, inanimate objects, etc -- they are all apparently unaffected. Though thousands of people die, Stardust comes to the rescue and reverses the process. He uses some kind of mental power to lower every single person gently back to Earth at the same time. Is it any wonder that he is the most remarkable man in the history of the universe?
One thing that is standard in virtually all of the stories is that Stardust stops the villains, but not before thousands of people are killed. In another story, the criminals plant weapons all over the country that suck the oxygen out of the air. Simultaneously, their weapons are triggered in the White House, Congress, state government buildings, banks, military bases, and offices. Though many people die of suffocation, Hanks makes a point to show that President Franklin Roosevelt is saved in time by Stardust's reversal of the weapons.
As for defeating the hero himself, no matter what weapons the criminals have to use against Stardust, he’s always go some power that can defeat them… usually in one panel.

The Fantomah stories are similar, except the title character is the most powerful woman in the universe and she devotes her energies to protecting jungle life. Like the criminals Stardust battles, her foes use bizarre weapons on the people and animals of the jungle. And, like Stardust, Fantomah doesn’t do anything until hundreds or thousands are killed.
Fantomah, like many of the "jungle women" before and after her, is an attractive (I use the term loosely, given Hanks' artistic abilities) blonde. However, when she uses her powers, her face changes into a skull. No explanation; it just happens.

As for the art, Hanks’ style is, well, unique. The work is simplistic, the anatomy is way out of whack, and it is easy to see why Hanks’ stories appeared only in third-rate comic books. His standard flying pose for his heroes has them with arms tight at their sides and their backs to the reader.

Overall, the stories read like something a ten-year-old would dream up. And given that that was the average age of a comic book reader at the time, I guess they hit the mark.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Zero Common Sense

The news over the weekend included a story of another child who has become a victim of his school's "Zero Tolerance" policy regarding weapons. This time it was a Staten Island fourth-grader who had a two-inch long toy gun that he put into the hand of a Lego policeman. Because of the school's policy, the boy faced suspension, despite the fact that this "gun" is just a tiny piece of molded plastic.

Last fall, a six-year-old first grader in Delaware was suspended and sentenced to 45 days in the district reform school. His crime? He brought a combination knife-fork-spoon that he received as a Cub Scout to school to use to eat his lunch.

A year earlier in Delaware, a third-grade girl was expelled for a year. Why? Her grandmother sent a birthday cake to school and included a knife to cut it. The teacher reported it... after using the knife to cut and serve the cake.

Similarly, there have been cases of students being suspended and expelled because they have violated their school's zero tolerance drug policy because they had in their possession aspirin, ibuprofin, and antacids. But perhaps the most absurd of these is the child who was suspended because he gave a classmate a cough drop!

Clearly, there is something wrong if school administrators are unable to determine the difference between a two-inch piece of plastic and a real gun and need a strictly black-and-white policy to determine what they do. And while the original purpose of zero tolerance policies might have been to prevent discrimination or unequal punishment, all they really do is allow situations like the above to occur, making a mockery of any good they are actually intended to do.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


An Associated Press story posted on AOL News  brought back a memory from more than twenty-five years ago.

It was late 1983 or early 1984 that I first read about Centralia, the small town in Pennsylvania under which a coal mine fire has burned since 1962. At the time, I was one of the regular writers of Superman and having the Man of Steel tackle such a problem made for the interesting beginning for an adventure. So, Supes flew off to "Coaltown" and used his heat vision to create a firebreak in the vein of coal so that the fire burned itself out.

The story appeared in ACTION COMICS #558 and was just another of numerous stories I wrote during that period. But it wasn't just another story to everyone.

I was at lunch in a restaurant in Montreal with Angelo Messina, the rep from Ronalds Printing that I worked with, when he got a page message. We figured that it meant something was going on with the printing job I was there to okay, but it turned out to be a message for me. A reporter named David Iseman was anxious to speak with me.

Though I did not know who David was, I figured that someone who had tracked me to a restaurant in Montreal had something urgent to talk to me about, so I called him. (In those days before everyone had cell phones, this entailed making an international call from a phone booth and charging it to a phone card.) Turned out that David was a reporter for a newspaper in Bloomsburg, a town near Centralia, and he was writing a story about my story. He asked me where I'd heard about Centralia and why I'd used it in the story. When we were finished speaking, he told me he would send me a copy of the story.

I was quite surprised when a package arrived a week or so later. The news story, headlined "Superman Saves Centralia," was on the front page and included a reprint of the first page of the comic book story. Not long afterward, I received another package, this one from the then-mayor of Centralia, Anne Marie Devine. It contained certificates proclaiming that Superman, artist Kurt Schaffenberger, and I were now honorary citizens of Centralia.

At the time, we had a vacation home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, so Laurie and I thought it might be interesting to make a trip from there to Centralia. I also decided to include a follow-up sequence about "Coaltown" in another Superman story. So, one summer day in 1984, we drove first to Bloomsburg where we met David Iseman for a cup of coffee, then continued on to Centralia.

Mayor Devine was quite gracious. She filled us in on the history of the mine fire, pointed out places where the steam and heat from the fire vented through the ground, and told us where we could get some nice views of the area. One thing I recall was her talking about winters in Centralia. Even when there was heavy snow, there were many parts of town where the ground was so warm that the snow melted, despite how cold it was.

Superman returned to "Coaltown" in ACTION COMICS #567 for the unveiling of a statue erected in his honor. David Iseman makes an appearance in the story, as a reporter for The Coaltown Press. For a reason I no longer recall, however, the mayor of Coaltown speaking at the ceremony is a man, rather than Ms Devine.

Though a number of families and businesses moved out of Centralia in the 80's under a federally-financed relocation program, at the time we visited, many of the townspeople were determined to stay and keep their town alive. That number has dwindled in the ensuing years; according to information I found, Mayor Devine left Centralia in 1993. Today, as the article cited above notes, there are only five homes left standing, with fewer than a dozen inhabitants. And, it would appear, if the state has its way, they too will soon be gone.

Clearly, the fire that doomed Centralia was a job for Superman. Unfortunately, he was not here to save the town.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Snow Foolin'

With another winter storm about to pummel the area, last night's local TV news folks were, as usual, devoting a major portion of the broadcasts to what could happen. The bottom line for this particular storm, however, seems to be that it will stay pretty much south of the New York metro area. In fact, it appears that only the southernmost part of New Jersey, which is closer to the Philadelphia metro area than New York's, is going to be hard hit. Current forecasts for NYC and Long Island range from 2 inches to 8 inches, and that varies depending on which radio or TV station you want to believe.

One of the local stations last night had a reporter standing outside a Wal-Mart in south Jersey, interviewing people who were coming out of the store is baskets filled with food and other "necessities." One woman had two overflowing carts, with dozens of eggs and gallons of milk among her purchases. It made me wonder just how big a family she has... and how long she expects to be cut off from civilization. Certainly, with what she had in the carts, they can eat for weeks without having to resort to cannibalism.

Another report showed people lined up at a Redbox DVD machine, loading up on movies to watch. One can only hope that their power doesn't go out while they are buried under the mountains of snow. DVDs don't play that well on a candle.

With each of the reports, we got a preview of which poor reporter we will be seeing tonight standing out in the snowstorm. That has always been one of the oddities of these weather events. If you look out the window, you can see the pouring rain, the driving snow, the gusting winds. Why does someone -- actually more than just one person since there must also be someone holding the camera -- have to be standing out in the middle of it? And how does that person get chosen? Short straw? Lack of seniority? Or just a great desire to be cold and wet?

I'd like to write more, but I should probably go out now and buy six loaves of bread, eight gallons of milk, nine dozen eggs and other necessities. And rent ten or twelve DVDs. I'd get more, but Laurie is out of town at a conference, so I need only to get enough for myself.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhog Day

Every February 2nd, I ask myself the same question: Will there be six more weeks of winter if the groundhog sees his shadow...or if he doesn't? As a result, I never know which to root for. Thankfully, there's enough coverage on the radio and the internet that I get the answer fairly quickly. Of course, when the groundhogs disagree...

Perhaps the most famous groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil, who gained worldwide fame thanks to the Bill Murray movie. But we have Malverne Mel and Holtsville Hal here on Long Island, as well as Staten Island Chuck, who is the spokesgroundhog for New York City. (Perhaps Chuck's real claim to fame was his "political comment" last year when he bit Mayor Michael Bloomberg's finger.)

This year, Phil, Mel and Hal all saw their shadows, forecasting six more weeks of winter. Considering the frigid temperatures we've experienced since November, that's not something to make us happy. Chuck, on the other hand, did not see his shadow, so I guess winter will be ending early in the five boroughs of NYC. Here on the other side of the city line, we'll still be freezing our butts off.

One amusing sidelight: Mayor Bloomberg apparently learned something from Chuck. In this year's photo op with the groundhog, the mayor is wearing heavy work gloves. I don't think it was because his hands were cold.


A few years ago, Laurie and I were on a vacation tour of Italy. During a long bus ride from Naples back to Rome, Laurie was bored and started "working the crowd," asking the other members of the group about themselves.

One family hailed from Punxsutawney and proceeded to tell us (and most of the bus) all about the Groundhog Day celebration there... in excruciating detail! We heard about the all-night outdoor celebration and the food and the members of the Groundhog Committee and what Phil does the other 364 days of the year and, well, you get the idea. We left Italy knowing more about Punxsutawney than we did about Rome, Venice, Florence or anywhere else we had visited.

As this story spun into the history of groundhogs and why the committee members wear top hats, a girl sitting in front of us asked her mother if how much longer our bus ride would take. When he mother replied that we were almost at the hotel, the girl exclaimed, "Oh, thank goodness!"


According to a story posted on AOL, despite his lesser notoriety, Staten Island Chuck has a much better track record than Punxsutawney Phil. Chuck has been correct 76% of the time while Phil's accuracy rate is only 39%. No one mentioned how well Mel or Hal do.

I'd sure like to believe Chuck's prediction that winter is coming to a rapid close. On the other hand, even if we have to go with Phil, Malverne Mel and Holtsville Hal, spring is only six weeks away, so I can start looking forward to the day when we open up the pool again.

Of course, we'll have to wait for the giant block of ice on the cover to melt first.