Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Favorite Movies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail!

montyholygrail_poster.jpgOriginally, I'd planned this installment to be on Planet of the Apes, but then I realized I'd just written about it as a Geek Memory installment, so I'll save that for later!

So... Monty Python and the Holy Grail! My fandom of Python took a bit of time to get started. Growing up, my dad would watch a few British comedy shows that were aired on PBS, but I had a difficult time penetrating the accent to really understand what the heck the actors were saying! I'm sure that I saw at least one episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus before I saw Holy Grail, but my memory was that even then, I couldn't quite make out what the Pythons were saying at that point.

I suppose it was further exposure to the Beatles as well as other British shows (such as The Avengers and The Prisoner) that helped my brain to finally click in to the accent and suddenly, I could understand them! So one day, when KCTS (channel 9, the local PBS station) was airing Holy Grail (which I'm certain I'd been alerted about from my contacts with the science fiction club), I was finally ready to watch it.

At least, I thought I was ready. As I said, I hadn't been a regular Python viewer yet, so I didn't quite have a feel for their style, which was of course multiple styles mixed together in such a way that it made a glorious whole that one never knew quite what to expect from! (wow, what a torturous sentence) So it caught me entirely by surprise as I watched the opening credits, and suddenly these references to moose kept creeping in... as well as the announcement that the original credits people were being sacked, with new credits people being hired to finish, but the moose references kept up then, and those people were sacked... until finally we got rinky-dink credits.

But even that wasn't enough to prepare me for the sight of King Arthur (played delightfully straight for the most part by Graham Chapman -- I still can't decide if Arthur or Brian was his greatest role), trotting through the forests of ancient Britain with Patsy, his stableboy, trotting behind him, using two half coconut shells together to mimic the sound of horse hooves, as they didn't have horses to ride! Something was seriously up with this movie, and it would bear closer attention!

I don't want to go through the entire plot of the movie here, because if you've been unfortunate enough to have never seen it, I want you to be fortunate enough to watch it fresh, without a lot of spoilers.

It's an amazing movie, and I was even more amazed when I bought the DVD of it some years later, and saw some of the special features, where it was revealed that all of the castle interiors were shot in the same castle -- often in the same room, just with a change of camera position and some new draperies put up to change the look! Certainly, the Pythons were extremely creative with their budgetary restrictions, and made a movie that looks more expensive than it had to have really cost!

There are so many great elements to this movie... the Knights Who Say "Ni," the French Knight who taunted the British ka....niggits, the Black Knight who wouldn't give up, Robin the Moderately Brave... so many of the characters and sequences from this film have been immortalized in various forms, including (at least, in the last 20 years or so) a variety of toys! I used to have a few of them, sadly they were sold years ago.

holygrail_still1.jpgWhat Holy Grail really did for me was to get me interested in going back and catching up on Monty Python's Flying Circus, as well as to check out their previous movie, And Now for Something Completely Different (not a "real" film per se, but a compilation of bits from their TV series redone with a slightly bigger budget, with some changes made here and there to try to link things a little more together), as well as other movies, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life (the previous one probably being one of my top ten movies, so you know I'll get to that here sooner or later... the latter movie, not so much).

Watching Python led me to checking out other British comedy series, such as the various Blackadder series, Red Dwarf, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers (naturally) and more. None of them were like Python at all (well, there were shows that were precursors to Python, which I was finally able to watch a few years ago, thanks to the library system, including And Now, the 1941 Show).

But back to the movie... As with all Python episodes and movies, the Pythons played multiple roles throughout the film, sometimes more than one might've realized! One would think Chapman had enough to do playing Arthur, but he also provided the voice of God, the middle head of the Nights Who Say Ni, and a Hiccoughing Guard; John Cleese played the Second Swallow-Savvy Guard (you need to watch the movie to know why a guard needed to be savvy about swallows -- the birds), the Black Knight, Peasant 3, Sir Lancelot, Taunting French Guard, and Tim the Enchanter... even co-directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones did mutiple on-screen roles! You can also look for Connie Booth (Cleese's wife) as the Witch, and Carol Cleveland (the "female Python," as she's often called) in two roles, as well as Neal Innes (sort of the Python's musical muse, he later teamed up with Eric Idle in the creation of The Rutles) playing a number of roles, too!

This movie was apparently a favorite of the individual Beatles, from what I've read... especially George Harrison, who stepped in when Life of Brian was in need of financial help, forming HandMade Films and exec producing that movie, even making an uncredited appearance in it!

The movie has had a long-lasting influence... there are video games that have played homage to it (1997's Shadow Warrior, and 1998's Duke Nukem: Time to Kill for starters), it was referenced in a sequence in the Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Doomsday World, there's a reference to it in Shrek the Third, and probably many others that would require extensive research to track down.

But as I've said, it's one of my favorite movies, I think it's absolutely hilarious, and I only wish I'd been able to see it in the theaters my first time, instead of on a tiny black and white TV! If you have never had the pleasure of seeing this film, by all means, rectify this mistake as soon as you can, or I may have to say "Ni!" or otherwise taunt you some more!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

If you or someone you know collects vintage SF magazines...

Created with flickr slideshow.

These are part of my current eBay offerings!

Government Comics!

Something a bit different in this installment of "Government Comics," as various comics strip characters promote the Golden Eagle program, designed to help protect the wilderness!
Yes, it's a pretty short one, isn't it? Well, I suppose I'll have to give you something else, then! Here's another one that features Li'l Abner, with the focus on Civil Defense:
Like the last one, Abner's presence in the story is purely incidental!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

My Characters: LaserAvenger!

Drawing by Jan Duursema, which I commissioned at the
1986 San Diego Comic Con, and colored digitally
years and years later.
Time for me to unload a data dump, of sorts, about one of the superheroes I created long ago, which it looks like will never be shared any other way! I will be writing about aspects of these characters that, when I've posted about them before, has never been revealed, so this is full of what would've been spoilers at one time!

This time around, the focus is on LaserAvenger. I created LaserAvenger not too long after creating Nightfighter, part of a sudden burst of creativity that led to my creating a handful of characters that, to this day, I've wanted to publish adventures of. This would've likely been around 1979 or so.

I'm sure some of the inspiration behind LaserAvenger would've been the hero now known as Quasar, although I think back then he was still Marvel Man, if he'd even appeared at all (I might've still been harboring memories of the return of Marvel Boy as the Crusader in The Fantastic Four), but the similarities end with what's around their wrists.

LaserAvenger's real name is Sam Blake. He began life as an orphan, his mother dying when giving birth, and his father disappearing immediately afterwards, stricken with grief. Sam was raised in a series of group homes. For some odd reason, he was never adopted... while he was a well-balanced child (or as well-balanced as any child could ever be), something about him seemed "off," making prospective adoptive parents decide against adopting him. He grew up near Seattle, Washington.

Sam's anchor in his young life was a counselor that he saw on a weekly basis (oddly, I can't recall what name I gave him, although I've probably got it written down somewhere around here). In some ways, this counselor was a surrogate father to Sam, offering him guidance, and always getting him inspired to do his best. By the time Sam was 16, he had decided to go forward with the legalities of being an emancipated minor, planning to use money that had been held in trust from his late mother's estate (such as it was) to live on, supplementing this with other benefits from the state as well as money from part-time work.

In sports and other play, Sam was a natural leader, inspiring his teammates to victory. By the time Sam was in high school, he was a star football player, with many colleges vying for him to attend and scholarships being offered to him right and left. Academically, Sam also excelled, qualifying him for academic scholarships. In fact, academics came rather easily to Sam, and he would often take it for granted that he'd do well on tests. His never needing to study allowed him to balance his life outside of class between football and his part time work.

Football was Sam's primary focus, and when he went to college, it was at the University of Washington, where he soon was a star player on their football team. But prior to this, on his eighteenth birthday, his counselor came to him with a package. It had been discovered among his mother's effects in the family home, with a note indicating it would be given to Sam on his 18th birthday. Sam didn't open the package immediately, setting it aside before leaving for a birthday party his friends were holding for him. Sam soon found that the party had alcoholic beverages present, despite all the kids attending being underage. Sam imbibed himself, despite knowing better, and decided to drive himself home despite being at least a little tipsy.

It was a rainy night, and while driving home, he lost control of his car, running it off the road before coming to a stop in a field. Miraculously, Sam wasn't injured, nor was anyone else injured. He was shaken up by this, and left his car where it was, taking a cab home, planning to return to his car the next day. Arriving back at his studio apartment, Sam finally decided to open the package, which contained two leather wristbands, each studded with five large jewels of a type Sam couldn't recognize. Sam thought these were odd, kind of cool, but not his type of thing, and the next day, he brought them to a pawn shop to see what he could get for them, hoping that perhaps he could come up with enough extra money to pay for the damage he'd caused the previous night.

The pawn shop he took them to didn't offer him more than ten dollars for the wristbands, as the jewels were "obviously fake" (in the pawnbroker's words), and Sam returned home, leaving the wristbands on his kitchen table while he thought about how he could make up for his actions of the night before. As Sam thought, the wristbands sat rays of sunlight from the window. It wasn't until early evening, after the sun started to go down, that Sam realized he'd been lost in thought for so long... and that, although he hadn't thought to turn on a light, there was still plenty of light in his apartment.

The light was coming from the jewels on the wristbands. Sam realized that, somehow, the jewels absorbed the sunlight and stored it, and glowed as a result. He experimented in private, taking the wristbands out to a secluded woodland area, and put them on. Instinctively, he seemed to realize that the wristbands harnessed light which could be utilized. His first experiment demonstrated that he could focus the light into lasers -- forming his hands into fists would create a single wide-beamed laser, while spreading his fingers made smaller lasers emanating from each finger. Further experimentation proved that the wristbands could somehow make him fly!

With college coming soon, Sam decided to table further experimentation, although he planned to develop his skill with them -- to what end, he hadn't decided yet.

The fall came, and Sam's first year of college began. His original major had been in physical fitness, with plans to become a college or high school football coach and physical education teacher, but now, he wondered if this was his best choice.

Halloween approached, and Sam found himself invited to a costume party. He used his wristbands as the focus point of his costume, a red and white affair intended to be a superhero costume, although not of any particular one. The design for the costume came to him easily. He was preparing to leave for the party when his phone rang.

It was a local hospital with news of his counselor, whom he hadn't seen since graduating from high school. His counselor had been working with another child in the foster care system, trying to help him get out of a gang he'd joined up with, and the gang didn't deal with the rejection well. They cornered him and beat him badly. Sam threw a trenchcoat over his costume and rushed to the hospital, where he learned those details from his counselor before the man lapsed into a coma. Due to the extensive internal injuries, the doctors didn't expect him to live through the night.

Sam was deeply disturbed by this turn of events, and decided that he needed to do something. Leaving the hospital, he doffed the trenchcoat and donned the mask he'd made for the costume, flying over to the foster child's home. He got the information from this child as to where the gang tended to hang out, and flew off to confront them, first telling the kid to stay away from the gang forever.

Sam's presence in front of the gang was impressive, to say the least. When he arrived, his entire body glowed with light, making him appear almost as an angel to some of the more religious types in the group. He made short work of the gang, first using his lasers to disable the gang's weapons, and then battling them hand-to-hand (he didn't dare use the lasers on them, not knowing how deadly they might be, although he was sorely tempted). At one point, one of the gang members pulled a gun that they'd concealed, and had Sam in his sights, but when Sam saw the gun, his light glow flared up, temporarily blinding his foes, and allowing Sam to finish defeating them.

Sam tied them up with chains and rope he was able to find, and also located some evidence of criminal activity, including some directly related to the attack on his mentor. He called the police, and flew off, leaving the gang and the evidence for the authorities. He flew back to the hospital and to the bedside of his mentor, telling his mentor that he'd brought his attackers to justice, minutes before his mentor passed away.

Sam realized, as he flew home, that this showed him what he should be using the power of the wristbands for. He also decided that his education could be used to further his effectiveness in using his powers. He immediately started working on changing his major and classes to focus more on the science of light, as well as continuing to work on a teaching degree. He dropped out of the football team at the end of the season to focus on his studies, as well as to have more time to be able to train with his powers.

As Sam further experimented, he developed further applications of his power. Along with the lasers, flight and glowing, he could also use the light to create a force field, although this tended to drain his power storage considerably the longer he used it. He also discovered he could create holograms, and added some art classes to his curriculum to better exploit these. An important power in his arsenal turned out to be the ability to turn himself invisible by bending light around him, although he somehow could still see just fine. He also discovered that the gems on his wristbands absorbed more light during daytime hours than at night, so when operating after dark, he has to be aware of how much of a "charge" he's using, and sometimes finds himself looking for a bright light source to recharge his gems from.

By the time Sam was in his final year of college, he'd grown out his beard, and decided that he was ready to begin operating in his new identity of LaserAvenger. He chose the name because his first time operating as a superhero was to avenge the beating of his counselor and mentor. He took a somewhat unique approach to working with the authorities, presenting himself in person to the police to convince them of his intentions and ability to carry them out. Fortunately, the police chief had been on the force long enough to have worked with a prior generation of costumed heroes, and was willing to give LaserAvenger a chance.

After graduating college and receiving his degree, Sam began teaching at the same University. Finding a balance between his research at the University, teaching classes, and operating as LaserAvenger didn't give him much time for a social life, but fortunately, it wasn't long before other costumed heroes of the new generation started appearing in the Seattle area.

The first two he encountered were Avian (who wore a powered suit with wings that enabled him to fly, along with other bird-like abilities) and Dynamo (whose suit was designed to store electricity and use it offensively). The trio formed the first new super-team Seattle had seen in over a decade, calling themselves the Guardians of Justice. It wasn't long before they'd begun recruiting other heroes to the team, some of whom were well-trained normal humans like the Ace, others using special devices to enhance their abilities (such a the powered armor-wearing Battlestar), and others who had superpowers of their own (such as Nightstar).

LaserAvenger and his allies soon proved to be a great asset to the city of Seattle and beyond, battling criminals and supercriminals alike, but also finding time to provide public services, such as visiting sick children in hospitals, appearing at charity fundraisers, and providing disaster relief.

As time passed, the Guardians added a member who came from the stars, a shape-changing telepath whom they dubbed Doppelganger. This alien was a Khamil, known as the librarians of the universe. They were devoted to exploring inhabited worlds and documenting those worlds' history and culture, using their abilities to assume the identity of the dominant lifeform and their telepathic abilities to learn the language. Doppelganger had been working with the Guardians for some time when he got a recall message from the Khamil homeworld, informing him that their world was being attacked, and all citizens were being recalled to defend their race.

The attacking aliens were the B'elari, a race Doppelganger was not familiar with. A group of Guardians, LaserAvenger among them, volunteered to go with their ally to help. On the way through warp space, Doppelanger consulted his starship's computers about the B'elari, but did not have much data on them other than that they were to be studied at a later date, which would be uploaded to his ship when he returned home.

Arriving at the Khamil homeworld, the Guardians could see that the planet's surface had been devastated by their attackers. A peaceful race, the Khamil had only basic planetary defenses, and no attack capabilities to speak of. Attacks had been made in waves, lasting days at a time, with a short period of a week or two between attacks (at least, as converted to Earth hours, that was the case -- in reality, the solar day on the Khamil homeworld lasted about three weeks in Earth time, with the attacks being made during the daylight hours, and falling back at night).

Doppelganger and the other Guardians presented themselves to the ruling librarians of the Khamil, they being introduced as friends allies, only to be taken aback when LaserAvenger is accused of being one of the B'elari attackers! The B'elari warriors all wear wristbands like LaserAvenger's, and used them in their attacks. The reason for the attacks is still unknown, and with the telepathic abilities of the Khamil, it's determined that LaserAvenger is not allied with the B'elari, although how he came to possess a set of B'elari wristbands is unknown.

When the Khamil daytime resumes, the attacks begin again, and LaserAvenger and the Guardians go on the offensive. The variety of attacks they are able to use proves effective in driving off the current attack wave, and the Guardians press their advantage, pursuing the B'elari warriors into space and to their invasion fleet. In the ensuing battle, LaserAvenger is captured, and the entire B'elari fleet is cloaked, leaving their whereabouts unknown.

As a B'elari prisoner, LaserAvenger learns a shocking truth: He is, indeed, a B'elari warrior, although he never knew it. As part of an experiment to see if the B'elari warriors are able to use their wristbands by right of birth or by means of training, the newborn Earth infant who was the "real" Sam Blake was exchanged with LaserAvenger, with all records altered to keep the deceit in place. They had no way of knowing at the time that Sam's mother would die of complications after giving birth, nor any of the other events of his life. The plan had been to return to Earth in a few years to check on the changeling and compare his development to the Earth child taken in his place.

The child born as Sam Blake has been raised as a B'elari, and had no idea of his true origins, either. Having been raised in this culture, he thinks of himself as B'elari, and when offered the opportunity to prove that his training would prove superior against LaserAvenger's innate abilities in a trial by combat, he readily agrees.

LaserAvenger tries to talk his "brother" into turning against the B'elari and helping the Khamil, but he won't listen, instead going right to the attack. At first, it seems the Earth-born man has the advantage, but LaserAvenger's experience against a variety of foes starts giving him a strategic advantage. While his opponent's use of the wristbands has been taught to him, LaserAvenger has had to discover their capabilities for himself... and he has some abilities the B'elari never considered trying, such as what he calls "lightform," which internalizes his power and makes him into a living hologram. In this form, LaserAvenger cannot be harmed by physical and most energy attacks, and is able to pass through anything that light can pass through, such as glass windows. At first, this makes him appear even more vulnerable to his attacker's abilities, as light-based attacks still affect him, but LaserAvenger manages to utilize this power and, when struck by a laser by his opponent, he latches on to the energy instead, drawing it into him. Normally, the gems on his wristbands just absorb ambient light to power up, but LaserAvenger has learned how to more fully control this ability to draw light into them at will. In his lightform, he's able to increase his own power directly and take even more of a light-charge than usual.

The B'elari warriors observing this reversal in battle are at first stunned, but then decide to attack LaserAvenger anew. Even more powerful than he was before, LaserAvenger absorbs the light energy from all his attackers, causing his lightform body to grow ever larger and more powerful, to the point where he can not even control the glow anymore. He looks almost like a living sun, so bright that he can't be even glimpsed directly. He then releases the energy all at once, to devastating effect. Fortunately for the B'elari, LaserAvenger had developed enough finesse in his abilities that he could choose to fire a light blast that stunned only, and did little or no physical damage. The B'elari leader has no choice but to acknowledge that LaserAvenger has the greater ability, and to unconditionally surrender.

As a result of LaserAvenger's actions, most of the B'elari warriors find their wristbands to be useless, whether burnt out or just temporarily disabled is unknown even to them. LaserAvenger's conditions of surrender include a non-aggression pact with all worlds. And then, he asks the B'elari leader why they attacked the Khamil, when their warriors had a long history of defending their race only. What he hears in response shocks him greatly: It was solely because the Khamil are physically different from them. The B'elari people are relatively homogenous... their skin color, hair color and eye color have only slight variations from one person to the next. While they can tolerate other humanoid races that resemble theirs closely (such as Terrans), they have no use for aliens who look distinctly alien. The Khamil, with jet-black skin, pale white eyes, and no visible nose or ears were just too different to them. Added to this their ability to shapeshift to appear to be any other race, the very idea of the Khamil existing was one that rocked the B'elari society to its core. They learned of the Khamil when the librarian assigned to their world was discovered by accident (they usually stay completely undercover, so as not to affect changes on the worlds they document), and they felt they had no choice but to wipe the Khamil from the universe forever.

LaserAvenger can't believe what he's been told... judging an entire race not by their culture or standards, but just from their appearance alone seems ridiculous to him. He tells the B'elari leader that if they cannot learn to live with other races being different from them, they will find the universe to be a very lonely place, because there are always differences between races, just as there are always differences between individuals. Using his holographic powers, LaserAvenger provides a brief overview of Earth's history with different cultures and how some have been mistreated, but pointing out that we are learning to not only accept the differences, but also to celebrate them. The human born as Sam Blake, never having learned the history of his birthworld, finds himself listening in interest, and wanting to know more. With the war between the B'elari and the Khamil now ended, LaserAvenger offers to arrange permission for emissaries from the B'elari to visit the Khamil computer libraries to learn more about other races in the universe, and how they have learned to live with each other. The B'elari leader promises that he will consider this, although whether it's because it's the will of the person who defeated their entire warrior army single-handedly or because he's truly learned something is unknown.

Before departing back to Khamil, LaserAvenger also points out that he let himself be captured so that he could find out what was behind the connection between him and the B'elari, as well as the reason for the attack on Khamil. If his team had really thought he was in danger, they would've found a way to find the B'elari fleet and rescued him. As if to prove this fact, as LaserAvenger ascends into space, he finds his teammates waiting for him.

Back on Earth, Sam Blake undergoes a bit of an identity crisis. Is he "really" Sam Blake because that's who he was raised to believe he was, or is the fact that he was not the child born named Sam Blake the "real" one? He takes a leave of absence from the University to consider this, and comes to the conclusion that just because he's found out not all of his past is as he'd believed it to be, he is still the same person he was before, although changed by his new knowledge. For better or for worse, he is Sam Blake... LaserAvenger.

Sam's time at the University gives him most of his supporting cast. His love interest as the series develops is a female professor at the University in a different department than his own. As his solo series would develop, I planned on having them first dating (with her never having any suspicion that he was LaserAvenger), and then having her accidentally barging in on him when he's changing into his costume, thus discovering his identity. Up to this point, the only real friends Sam would have would be his fellow Guardians; he'd be on good terms with other teachers at the University, but none could be considered a close, personal friend that he could confide in. With her discovering his identity, she would at first be freaked out, naturally, but then would offer to help cover his absences when he needs to operate in his heroic identity.

As LaserAvenger, Sam is a natural leader and tactician. He's the kind of person that inspires those around him. Of all the Guardians, he's the one who's most concerned about the safety of innocents when battling a super-villain, and will sometimes act to draw fire away from civilians at the risk of his own life. He has a code against killing, but acknowledges that there might come a time when there is no other way to deal with a threat. He is also the most available member of the Guardians when a hero is asked to appear at some civic or charitable function, although he tries to steer clear of appearing to have any particular political leanings. He's publicly recognized as the leader of the Guardians, and when he's not present in the group, there is some confusion as to who should be coordinating things and leading the team. He's on excellent terms with the police, city and federal governments, although he never meets the President in person. Realizing that the next generation of heroes needs to be properly trained, he institutes a program where seasoned heroes can teach younger heroes how to use their powers and abilities, as well as other crimefighting techniques.

Some heroes find LaserAvenger intimidating, especially those who only know him from newspaper and TV reports. They find his example of what a hero should be a challenge to meet up with, although LaserAvenger (or "Laze," as he's nicknamed by his teammates) always does his best to not criticize his fellow heroes, but rather offers ideas and suggestions that might work well for them. While results matter, he believes that so long as someone has given things their best shot, that's a victory all its own.

There are two villains who LaserAvenger tends to deal with the most. The first is Death's Head, a masked villain who wants nothing more than the death of all superheroes. Unknown to any of the Guardians, Death's Head's life is full of tragedy. As a child, he saw his parents killed in the crossfire of a battle between a supervillain and superhero (although not one who's currently active). Seeing his parents die like that, and determining that the hero should've saved them, he developed a life-long hatred of superheroes. While he may make threats against civilians, he never acts upon them, but instead realizes that doing so puts the attention of superheroes squarely on him. It's extremely rare that he gets close enough to the heroes for them to see him, but most often uses either henchmen dubbed his "Death Squad," or more often, a series of "Death-Droids," invented by him and designed to kill superheroes. He had thought that the heroes were all gone until LaserAvenger and other heroes started appearing.

The second villain, or rather, villainess, is focused solely on LaserAvenger. Midnight is a woman whose powers are the near opposite of LaserAvenger's. Whereas his powers are light-based, hers are based on darkness. It's unknown just how she gained her abilities, which include flight, emitting a "black ray" that tends to cause a numbness (some say it doesn't affect one physically, but rather psychically or spiritually), creating areas of darkness, and being able to vanish entirely in shadows. There are times when she's appeared from a shadow and it doesn't seem that she could've possibly entered the shadow in the first place, leading some to believe that she's able to teleport from darkened area to darkened area. Completely amoral, when she encounters LaserAvenger, she nearly always tries to talk him into giving up being a hero and joining her, so they can reign as King and Queen of Crime. Since their powers tend to stalemate each other's, LaserAvenger often has to resort to trickery in order to capture her, although of course, each trick only works once!