Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rest In Peace, Harold Ramis

Yesterday we lost one of the greats, Harold Ramis the actor/writer/director/Renaissance Man who co-wrote (and in some cases, directed) a ton of classic comedies, including National Lampoon's Animal House, National Lampoon's Vacation, Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters.  For me, his most memorable character as an actor is Dr. Egon Spengler, the science guy for the Ghostbusters.  When people quote that movie, nine times out of ten they're saying one of Egon's lines.  His passing has hit me pretty hard.  Not only because I am an enthusiastic admirer of his work but because he died from a particularly nasty autoimmune disease:  autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis.  His family must have known it was coming; Harold died at home surrounded by family.  He was 69.

Ramis had been out of the public eye since his last major attack of the disease in 2010 which made walking difficult for him.  AIV can cause all kinds of nasty complications, depending on where you have it and which organs are affected.  When fatal, it usually affects the skin and the kidneys, mostly, but it can happen anywhere in the body and to any organ system.  It is a close relative of autoimmune neuropathy, a form of which affects my autonomic and sensory nerves.  (I am thankful that my motor nerves are unaffected, at least so far.)

Harold Ramis leaves behind him an enviable body of work, including several films destined to be considered classics.  Ghostbusters is my personal favorite out of all of his movies, but only by the tiniest of margins.  It was filmed in part on location in the Tribeca part of Manhattan at the Fire Department of New York Hook and Ladder 8, which is still a working firehouse.  You can visit the firehouse and the guys on duty will be happy to share their little Ghostbusters museum with you, including the signs that hung outside for the two movies.  Yesterday they placed this little tribute outside their doors -- you can just make it out at the bottom right of the big red door in the second photo.

Dr. Egon Spengler, collector of molds, spores and fungus, believer that print is dead, and inventor of the PKE meter:

And Hook and Ladder 8 in happier times:

So long, Harold, and thanks for everything.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

DC Comics...Definitely Confusing?

A few months back, DC launched its big event crossover, "Forever Evil."  The Big Event Crossover has become a "thing" with almost every major comics publisher.  Some event or story line changes the entire comics universe, and the story plays out across just about every title published by the company.  Usually there is a special title or mini-series along with it, maybe a bookend at the beginning and end of the Event, or maybe an actual series of books where the main plot plays out while the ramifications for the individual characters play out in their own respective comic books.

It is usually, sadly, a thinly disguised ploy to make money, with creativity taking a back seat.  The job of the Big Event Crossover is to get you to buy the extra books as well as some books that you normally don't read, in order to follow the story.  The hope is that you will stick with some of them after the Event is over.  Now that comics cost at least $2.99 apiece and usually closer to $3.99, it can turn out to be a substantial chunk of money for the dedicated reader.

When I was a kid, DC dealt with its then-30-year history by coming up with the Multiverse.  Those stories from the 1940's, when Superman and Batman were just starting out?  It turned out they were taking place on another Earth, Earth-2.  This was why "our" Superman and Batman weren't 60-year-old men still trying to fight crime.  This turned out to be rather creative on DC's part.  When they picked up another company's characters, if they didn't want to incorporate those characters into the main DC Universe (aka "Earth-1") they gave them their own Earth.  If you were a Charlton character like Captain Atom or The Question, well, welcome to Earth-C.  Captain Marvel and the rest of the Shazam! gang?  Earth-S.

My favorite Earth, though, was Earth-3 -- the Earth where Evil always triumphed over Good.  There was still a Justice League, but it was called the Crime Syndicate of Amerika and was made up of evil versions of heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.

Ultraman, Superwoman, Owlman, Power Ring and Johnny Quick (the evil version of the Flash) repeatedly tried to take over our Earth, but they always forgot that over here, Good wins, so of course they were always defeated.

Until "Forever Evil."

The crossover event started interestingly enough.  An artifact thought to be Pandora's legendary Box was opened and turned out to be a portal to Earth-3.  Something was happening to destroy that Universe, and the Crime Syndicate escaped into our world, and this time, they figured out a way to stack the deck against us so that, for once, they would win and the whole Good/Evil balance would be forever shifted here, essentially turning Earth-1 into a new Earth-3.  Which was fine, until delays and production problems at DC caused the books to come out so very slowly that most of them have moved on to other things.  Batman, for example, is already dealing with his own Bat-Books crossover, "Gothtopia."

Which leaves the rest of us terribly, terribly confused.

Is "Forever Evil" happening on some other Earth?  Is it the proverbial "dream, hoax or imaginary story?"  Damned if I know.  

Most of DC's books make little or no reference to Forever Evil, despite the fact that supposedly our planet is largely in ruins thanks to the depredations of the bad guys.  Flash, Batman, Superman and Green Lantern are all doing other things.  The story that was supposed to clarify and re-energize the entire DC Universe has done quite the opposite, leaving everything even more confused -- and confusing for readers! -- than ever.  

If you're reading the "Forever Evil" mini-series or any of the Justice League comics (there are three, "Justice League," "Justice League Dark," and "Justice League of America") then "Forever Evil" is a HUGE deal with vast repercussions including deaths of major characters like the Martian Manhunter.  If you're reading any of Superman's, Batman's or Green Lantern's books, you'd never know any of it had happened, or was happening.  IT'S HORRIBLY, HORRIBLY CONFUSING.  And the fanboy in me wants it to be fixed, and soon.

So if you're a comics publisher, please -- don't start any big event comics until all your ducks are in a row and all the issues are in the can.  I realize that Batman can't wait for the rest of us mere mortals, but damn it, I for one would like to know if "Gothtopia" is happening after "Forever Evil" or before it, or alongside it, or on another plane of existence altogether.

DC, you need to fix this soon, before "Definitely Confusing" becomes "Decidedly Crap."

("What the Hell have you done to my favorite comics?!?)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Of Mice And Men

It dawned on me the other day that 40 years ago this month, I was cast as "Lennie" in the University of Virginia's production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. I have always loved theater. I was very active in the drama program at my high school in New Jersey, much to the dismay of my abusive father, who thought I should have pursued sports instead of appearing in some "sissy play." (I was never quite able to convey to him that for every thirty girls in the drama department, there were only three or four guys, but that was not why I favored drama over basketball. It was, however, an argument he perhaps would have understood.)

The first show I tried out for in high school was The Mouse That Roared and I actually scored a speaking part. I was forced by my father to drop out of the show so that I could instead try out for the baseball team. (It was too bad, too, because the woman whom I would one day marry was also cast in the show. I hadn't met her yet, and it would be another year before I did.) Eventually my father realized, much to his personal dismay and embarrassment, that I have absolutely no talent for sports but was actually pretty good at the theater thing. He finally came to the last show I did in high school, The Fantasticks, which got rave reviews and was actually extended to run another week because of demand from the community for tickets. He never actually gave me any praise for my performance, but grudgingly admitted that he enjoyed the show. (In all fairness, you have to be a real stone not to enjoy yourself at even a half-decent performance of The Fantasticks, and for a bunch of high school kids, our production was pretty great.)

But even though I won the school's drama scholarship, there was never any consideration by my family of my going off to college to major in anything other than pre-law. I could pick history, government or political science, but that was the extent of my choice.  Which, looking back on things, was ridiculous since I received absolutely no financial assistance from my family whatsoever. The University of Virginia offered me a combination of scholarships and work-study, which is how I was able to get myself to college. It was a fallback after the US Naval Academy discovered that I suffered from Crohn's Disease at my pre-admission physical exam and declared that I was unfit for service. But it wasn't like my family could pull the rug out from under my education, so I think it was just the habit of submitting to their intimidation that kept me from majoring in whatever I wanted. At least at first.

I had been auditioning for shows with the Virginia Players and taking elective courses in the Drama Department since my first year at U.Va. At that time, their shows were performed in a tiny shoebox of a theater in a building named Minor Hall. I stood 6'5" tall and on that stage I was, quite literally, hitting my head on the stage lights. I was never cast in anything because I never looked quite right up there. But in 1974, thanks to a grant from Dr. David Culbreth in honor of his mother, Sarah, the Drama Department opened up its new state-of-the-art theater building. It had two theaters, a traditional proscenium stage (the Culbreth Theater) and a large experimental "black box" space (the Helms Theater) which had flexible seating that could accommodate anywhere from 160 to 200 people depending on how it was configured. The main stage was not quite ready when the building opened and it was decided that the first play in the building would be done in the Helms Theater and would be Of Mice And Men.

(The Drama Building from when it opened in 1974.)

(The Helms Theater, a big black box with arrangeable seats.)

Now, I was very familiar with Of Mice And Men, and I figured that for once my size would work for me, not against me. So I auditioned for the role of Lennie, the mentally handicapped but physically powerful migrant worker and friend of George. I was called back. Then, instead of a cast list being posted, there was a second call back.  There are nine male roles. The director called back ten men, including me...and one other large man. The other guy was a graduate student in Drama, a Master of Fine Arts candidate, and had just come off of playing lead after lead after lead at Minor Hall. I didn't have a prayer.

So when the cast list was finally posted the day after the second call back, it took a while for me to believe that it was actually my name that I was seeing.

(Me, as Lennie, age 20. I think I had just accidentally crushed yet another mouse.)

The show was very well-received. We performed to a sold-out run, and I don't think it was entirely due to the new theater space. I went on to take the role one more time at a theater in San Francisco, but of all the things I've done in the theater, this performance is the one of which I am most proud. I dropped pre-law and added a major in Drama to the History major I had just about completed, stayed a fifth year at U.Va. to complete it, and went on to work steadily as an actor until that Crohn's Disease I mentioned up above became so bad that there was no way I could continue. I was forced by illness to reconsider my career and ultimately went with my second love, books and reading, and became a librarian. But that, as they say, is a story for another time. For right now, though, I'm feeling especially nostalgic this month for those days I was able to spend on the stage. I still can't quite get my mind around the fact that forty years have passed. I'm still lucky enough to have friends from that same production. Thanks to all of you.