The Way of the Word

23. August 2011

RIP Loriot

Born November 12, 1923, as Bernhard Victor Christoph-Carl von Bülow (short: Vicco) in Brandenburg an der Havel; died August 22, 2011 in Ammerland.

Vicco von Bülow was born in 1923 as the son of a Major of the police. Actually, the von Bülows were old German nobility who can trace their line back until 1154. After the divorce of his parents, he and his younger brother lived with their grandparents, until the father remarried in 1932. After graduating school, he followed his father’s advice and studied art in Hamburg. Upon graduation, he worked as a graphics designer, and became a cartoonist in 1950. At this time, he chose the pen name of Loriot. His success as a cartoonist took some time, it wasn’t until 1954 that his work was collected in book form.

His breakthrough was when he started to present the TV show Cartoon in 1967. While his presentation was originally completely serious and straight, it eventually developed into one of the show’s comedic highlights. He also started to produce his own animated shorts for this German TV program. After designing the mascot for a German charity (the dog Wum), he got his own TV show in the 1970s. The short films from this program are still being re-run on German TV. One of the various activities he pursued during his career was conducting opera.

He officially retired from TV in 2006, giving the reason that the medium had become so short-lived that it was no longer possible to produce quality comedy for it.

It’s possible but exhausting to list the awards he won during his career.

So, what can I add to everything that is being said about Vicco von Bülow now that he’s dead? Basically, as someone who grew up laughing at his jokes, I can confidently state that Germany is no longer funny. The funniest German ever has left us. At least we can always look back on his jokes.

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24. June 2011

RIP Gene Colan

Born September 21, 1926 in New York, died June 23, 2011 (aged 84), after a broken hip and complications from a liver disease.

Gene Colan studied art at the Art Students League of New York and began working in comics in 1944, drawing for Fiction House’s Wing Comics. He joined the US armed forces just in time for the end of the war, but spent time serving with the US occupation forces in the Philippines, where he rose to the rank of corporal and drew for the Manila Times. Upon his return in 1946, he produced a short story, took it to Timely Comics and was hired on the spot, where he worked as a staff artist until Timely laid off almost all their staff in 1948. Colan turned to freelancing, especially for the company that would become DC Comics.

Upon the beginning of the Silver Age in the 1960s, Colan quickly established himself as one of the greatest artists working in American comics. He worked on Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Iron Man and most notably Daredevil.

With Daredevil as his signature superhero work, he became something of a household name when he teamed up with writer Marv Wolfman on the horror series The Tomb of Dracula, a book that he had actively lobbied to be assigned to. His dark, moodily-brooding pencils that were complimented by the work of inker Tom Palmer were probably a greater factor in the book’s success than Marv Wolfman’s inspired writing.

In the 1980s, he had a falling out with Marvel Comics and instead worked more for DC Comics, on books like Batman, Night Force or Wonder Woman.

He quite literally kept working until the end.

Colan was a multiple awards winner, like the Shazam Award (1974), the Eagle Award (1977, 1979), the Sparky Award (2008) and the Sergio Award (2009). He was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2005.

Back in the Silver Age, Colan had his very own style. It was a dark, shadowy and moody style. Personally, I always felt that he worked on some books where his style didn’t mesh (Captain America, for example), but on the right books (Daredevil, Tomb of Dracula, Night Force, Nathaniel Dusk) it was really breathtaking. Colan is one of those few American comic artists whose work actually looks better when it’s stipped of the coloring, as you can easily see if you look at Marvel’s Essential Tomb of Dracula collections. He was one of the first artists who could make me excited for a new comics series: the only reason why I eagerly anticipated the coming of DC’s Night Force back in 1982, or that Nathaniel Dusk noir miniseries (1984) by a writer I didn’t know, were because it had Colan art, and he wasn’t doing superheroes.

In that regard, yes, it was funny: I was very much a superhero reader at the time, but I always felt that Colan was wasted on superheroes. His style was wrong for it, it was too different, too unique.  It was, in a word, distinctive, and by all accounts he struggled against the pressure from his higher-ups in order to keep it distinctive, rather than to conform to a house style or some momentary fashion. That alone should earn him respect and accolades. Of course, it helps that he was one of the best comics artists ever. His visual storytelling skills, his moody, shadowy and atmospheric style set him apart from most of his peers, and seriously, anyone who wants to work as a comic book artist should look at his work and learn from it.

Will he be missed? By those who knew him, certainly. I haven’t had the privilege, but I’m told he was one of the nicest people in the business. By the rest of us, his readers? Well, we still have the comics he drew to re-read and appreciate, and to make us thankful for everything he had to give to us.

23. February 2011

RIP Dwayne McDuffie

Born February 20, 1962; died February 21, 2011, from complications after emergency surgery at the age of 49.

Sometimes, these things come as a surprise and a shock. As in the case of Dwayne McDuffie, a prolific and extremely gifted writer. According to all sources, he seemed to be in fine health when he attended the All-Star Superman DVD premiere a few days earlier. According to reports, he died from complications from a surgical procedure performed on Monday night. So far, details are not known.

After a stint at radio and copyediting for a financial magazine, Dwayne had joined Marvel Comics as an assistant editor, and started to write for them in 1988. He went freelance in 1990, and founded Milestone Media in 1992. Milestone Media was a coalition of African-American comics creators, in order to express a multi-cultural sensibility that he felt was missing in comics. Several Milestone series were eventually published by DC Comics.

In the course of his career, Dwayne worked on high-profile series and characters such as Fantastic Four, Justice League of America, Batman, Iron Man and Spider-Man, to name just a very few. However, other than the Milestone comics (of which some characters, such as Static, became iconic in their own right), he definitely made his mark in animation.

Dwayne’s version of the Justice League in the animated Justice League Unlimited is lauded as perhaps the best version of these characters and concepts ever produced. In 2008, he revamped the Ben10 franchise. His most recent releases were the Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and All-Star Superman animated movies.

I didn’t know Dwayne in person, but we did interact online a couple of times. He was a smart, witty and very personable man; if you didn’t like Dwayne, there was something wrong with you.

He was a fantastic writer, a gifted writer, with a vision. He influenced a great many people in comics and animation not only by being there for them, but also by example. His passing is triply sad; not only did it seem that he was on the verge of receiving the recognition he deserved, not only was it too sudden and too soon, but it also robs the rest of us of those stories he hadn’t gotten around to telling yet.

3. November 2010

Review: Megamind

USA 2010. Directed by Tom McGrath. Starring Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill. Runtime: 96 Minutes

The rivalry of Megamind (Will Ferrell), the coolest villain ever to torment Metro City, and his annoying arch-nemesis, the goody-two-shoes Metro Man (Brad Pitt) has lasted since their childhoods. Now Megamind has the perfect plan to defeat Metro Man: he kidnaps Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey) — again — and tricks Metro Man into thinking that they are in the old observatory outside the city. Metro Man walks right into Megamind’s trap, Megamind unleashes his death ray — and succeeds in killing Metro Man.

Unexpectedly.

Now Megamind is King of Metro City, master of all he surveys. And it bores him to tears.  He misses the fights against Metro Man. He misses the challenge.

What’s a supervillain to do?

Why, create a new superhero, of course. Using a sample of Metro Man’s DNA, Megamind creates a process that can bestow Metro Man’s superpowers on an ordinary human. By accident, it’s Roxanne’s cameraman Hal (Jonah Hill) who gets the powers. Megamind trains Jonah to be the hero Megamind wants to fight. As it turns out, however, Hal (now Tighten) is far too selfish, and becomes the world’s greatest villain. Now Megamind is forced to become a hero and save Metro City.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about Megamind. The animation is top-notch, and the in-your-face “look, it’s 3D!” effects aren’t very annoying. (Actually, Megamind is another example for why 3D should be restricted to animated movies. They at least get it right.) The movie is funny, and Megamind’s journey from villain to hero is quite believable. He’s also a lovable kind of villain: throughout the story, he is shown as not evil, just juvenile. If you accept that, the premise of his evolution makes perfect sense. (It also explains the really annoying habit this movie has: Megamind’s minion carries a ghetto blaster and plays a kind of soundtrack for its master. Among others, Highway to Hell and Bad. To which Megamind dances. Like a teenager would.)

Megamind also provides some metatextual commentary on the superhero genre. The title character is an old-school villain. Death rays, giant robots, elaborate traps and schemes. He engages the hero, loses, and is sent to prison, from where he escapes to try again. Part of his character evolution comes when he realizes that Tighten doesn’t play by the old rules.

If you’re familiar with the superhero tropes, Megamind offers nothing original. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s exciting and for once the 3D actually helps the movie instead of just looking silly. The characters are believable, and very very likable. I can’t imagine anyone not liking Minion, for example. (Seriously: if you liked Despicable Me‘s minions, you’ll love Minion and the Brain Bots.) The movie is charming, the production values are first rate. It’s definitely worth your time and money.

It’s just… Don’t go in expecting the next Incredibles. Megamind falls a bit short of that benchmark.

Verdict: recommended

26. August 2010

RIP Satoshi Kon

Filed under: Animation,comics,Commentary,general,movies,RIP,Uncategorized — jensaltmann @ 10:10
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Satoshi Kon (born October 12, 1963), a director of anime, died on August 24, 2010, of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 46. He knew of his coming death since May 18, when he was told that he had at most 6 months left to live.

After studying to be a painter, Kon got his start as a mangaka working as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo. He entered the world of anime in 1991 as a set designer for Roujin Z, and sold his first screenplay, Magnetic Rose, in 1995. His debut as a director was the anime Perfect Blue in 1997.  In the following years, he created the anime Millenium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika and the TV series Paranoia Agent.

His work usually dealt with subjective realities, blurring the edges between reality, deams and fantasy. Yet his stories, as bizarre and over the top as they were, were very much grounded in humanity. Despite the tragedy of the human condition that was found in his work, it was always in its own way upbeat and humorous.

We had the privilege of translating Paranoia Agent into German a few years ago, an assignment that made me a fan of Kon’s work. Kon was a brilliant anime creator, and his passing is a great loss for the artform.

His final, incomplete work The Dream Machine will be released posthumously in 2011.

He left a final message on his blog. Excerpts from it have been posted on various places on the internet, so I’ll leave you to find those. In his final blog, he writes about how he was in constant pain so he went to see a doctor. He writes about the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which had alread metastatized into his bones, and how he was told he had only a few months left to live. He writes about how he made his final arrangements and set his affairs in order. How he arranged, against the wishes of his doctors, to die at home. He describes an out-of-boy experience he had while he was taken out of the hospital.

The greatest gift he has for the readers of this last message is that he lets us know that he was at peace. He wasn’t angry at his fate, or upset that he was dying. He accepted the fact and had made his peace with it. That, at least, is a comfort.

18. June 2010

Review: Despicable Me

USA 2010. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin. Voices by Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews. Runtime: 95 minutes

Gru is a supervillain. He’s moderately successful at it and enjoys doing wicked little things just to stay in practice. But when someone upstages him by stealing the pyramids, he realizes that he needs to step up his plan for the crime of the century: to steal the moon. Sadly, that won’t work without a shrink ray. Annoyingly, Gru’s most irritating competitor Vector steals said shrink ray from Gru. But Gru discovers Vector’s weak spot: he loves cookies. And his suppliers are the three orphan girls Margo, Edith and Agnes. In order to penetrate Vector’s fortress, Gru adopts the girls – and gets more than he has bargained for. Because now, in addition to preparing the crime of the century, he has to deal with being a father. Which is something for which he isn’t ready. The situation he finds himself in continues to spiral out of his control until he has to decide if he wants to be the world’s greatest supervillain, or a father.

If you go into this movie expecting a new Incredibles, you will be disappointed. Despicable Me is very much a children’s movie, far more so than that animated superhero movie. The main adult characters, Gru and Vector, are still very much childlike in their own ways. And while the rivalry between Gru and Vector is the driving force of the movie, the real heart lies in the developing relationship between Gru and the girls. Children will also love Gru’s Minions. Most of the movie’s humor seems to come directly out of Loony Tunes cartoons. What child will not love the scene where Gru, after Agnes has been cheated out of the fluffy unicorn, vaporizes the offending carnival stall? Let’s face it – haven’t we all wished for a dad who would do that? Or wished to be the kind of dad who could do that? Coolest dad ever, seriously.

Most good animated movies also work on a second level: they entertain the adult as well as the child. Despicable Me delivers on this score. I saw the movie with a completely adult audience, and there was a lot of laughter. For adults, the fun lies in the absurdity of the situations and the designs. It lies in little offhand snarks that a child won’t understand, such as when the Bank of Evil is subtitled “Formerly Lehman Brothers.” It lies in the sympathy the adult audience feels when Gru desperately tries to find funding for his latest scheme, only to be told that he’s too old and too soft. Or the question whether or not Vector’s design is based on a certain software mogul. (If the cookiebots don’t make you laugh, you have no soul.) In some cases, such as Vector’s Loony Tunes defenses, the laughter is nostalgic. But whatever the reason, Despicable Me is a very funny movie even if you’re an adult. And even an adult won’t be too annoyed with the Minions. An adult, however, will definitely wonder where they have seen some of the character designs before.

I saw the 3-D version of the movie. There are a few scenes that were obviously put in to show off “Lookkit us, we’re 3-D!” (like the rollercoaster scene). Generally, however, the 3-D works very well and actually serves to enhance some of the scenes.

In summary: Despicable Me is a fun movie that the entire family can enjoy.

Verdict: Very recommended

10. March 2010

Tron’s Legacy

The second trailer for Tron: Legacy is out, and it has the internet split in two.

Those over 30 experience geekgasms. Those under 30 don’t understand what the big deal is.

Let me help you out with that. First, watch the trailer. If you don’t know the original movie, you won’t get a lot of what makes us old fogeys go “Whoa.” But that’s okay.

Done? Had fun? Now, indulge an old man and watch the trailer of the original Tron, from 1982. I promise that if you do, some of the stuff from the new trailer will make sense.

Done? Great. How did you like the second one? I know, not nearly as cool as the first one. The CGI look horrible and insanely dated, don’t they? The way Jeff Bridges stumbles on some pretty basic (almost primitive) computer-speak dialog is funny. The story is also a major case of “been there, done that,” right? I mean, some guy getting pulled into VR, what’s so hot about that?

What you need to remember is that the original Tron is from 1982. Nobody even knew what cyberspace was. Sure, the term was coined in 1982, but it didn’t enter the public awareness until William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer in 1984. CGI as we know it today didn’t exist. Sure, there had been some computer graphic effects in movies since 1971, but those had always been about someone looking at a computer screen. CGI, as we know it today, can really only be traced back as far as 1982. ILM used some CGI effects in Star Trek 2. Tron was the first movie to use extensive 3D CGI-sequences, and very simple facial animation. Extensive for the time means that 15 minutes of the movie were completely computer-generated.

That dumb shot of the huge virtual face? At the time, unique. First time ever. The first photorealistic CGI-character didn’t appear on the screen until 1985, and he only had 10 seconds of screen time.

Terminator 2? Jurassic Park? Babylon 5? Toy Story? Matrix? Avatar?

None of them would have been possible without Tron.

Regarding Tron’s story, you could say that it’s an old hat. Sure, there were some elements that were not really new. Basically, it’s a story about a god coming into a world of mortals to help fight a great evil. God being called a “user” and the mortals being “programs.” You could also say that it’s a superhero story. That works just as fine.

So what if the world is VR/cyberspace? Again, you’re looking at the wrong context. Remember what I said above, about how the word cyberspace did not even exist when Tron was made? Nobody had any concept of cyberspace. That there could be a world within the computers… at the time, it was a daring concept that boggled the mind. Matrix took it a step farther… 20 years after Tron, when it really was an old hat.

Maybe all of this will give you a certain sense of perspective. Maybe now you understand why Tron is such a big deal for those of us who are over 30.

Tron was in 1982 what Avatar is in 2010: it was the movie that redefined what movies could do. It was the big game changer. It created new possibilities and set a new standard, that everyone who followed had to try and outdo.

In 30 years, your children will ask you why Avatar, this dated movie with that dumb story, is such a big deal to you.  (Actually, considering how much more quickly technology progresses these days, it will probably be much sooner than 30 years.) Then you will explain to them, as I do here, just how different movies were before and after Avatar.

And that is why Tron is such a big deal for us who saw it when it was new. Are the effects dated? Of course. Is the story original? By now, no longer. Is the acting cheesy? Actually, I don’t think so. At least most of the time it’s pretty solid.

Do we, the over-30s, expect Tron: Legacy to be a game-changer, the way its daddy was? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t think so. It will, however, be a good showcase for the advance of CGI since 1982. It will also, I expect, be a great deal of fun, and it is the only movie coming out this year that I will actually make an effort to see in the 3D-version.

I really, really look forward to this one.

9. March 2010

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Filed under: Animation,movies,review — jensaltmann @ 10:00
Tags: , , , ,

USA 2010. Directed by Dean deBlois & Chris Sanders. Featuring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerry Butler, America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson. Runtime: 90 minutes. Animated. Loosely based on the novel by Cressida Cowell.

Hiccup is a young Viking, the son of the village’s chieftain Stoic. The Vikings of this island, Berk, have a problem with dragons. Frequently, they cast off in an attempt to find their nest. They never do. Hiccup’s problem is that he is sarcastic and, well, small. Far from dragonslayer material. He wants to prove himself, though. Everyone wants to be respected.

During one dragon attack, Hiccup tries a new invention against the dragons, and actually snares one: a Nightshadow. He tracks the fallen creature down in order to kill it… but has to discover that he can’t. Instead, he befriends the dragon. The time he spends with Toothless, as he calls the dragon, teaches him a lot about these creatures. Enough to excel during dragon training, where young Vikings are taught how to slay dragons. He also discovers that dragons are nothing like what the Vikings had always thought. He also discovers the dragons’s nest, and the terrible beast that frightens even the dragons. Of course, it can’t be helped that the Vikings also find the lair, and now Hiccup has to save everyone.

At the bottom of it, the story is relatively standard: it’s a “coming of age”-story coupled with a “once you get to know them, you won’t hate them anymore”-story. I can’t say anything about the voice acting, the version I saw was the dubbed German one (those voices were quite good). The animation is vivid and lively. Keeping with 21st century standards, the movie at least looks completely CGI. One very fun part of this movie is the way it plays with and subverts action- and fantasy movie tropes. You will laugh when you first meet Hiccup’s crush, the fierce warrior girl Astrid.

I was shown the 3D-version, and can only say, don’t bother. In the case of How to Train Your Dragon, the 3D doesn’t add to the storytelling. Instead, it sometimes actively distracts from what is going wrong, and there are too many “Lookit! 3D!” moments in the movie. I dare say that if you see HTTYD in 2D, you won’t lose out on anything.

On the whole, though, the movie is very enjoyable. Children and adults will both recognize issues that families happen to face, such as the constant miscommunication between Stoic (father) and Hiccup (son). The dragons are fearsome and lovable — it’s very clear which real-world animals the directors used as a behavior template for these ferocious and yet cute beasts.

The showdown is massive, dramatic, exciting. Here, the creators dared something that I haven’t seen very often in animation, and for which I salute them: fighting a monster like the Hive Mother Dragon is dangerous, and if you do that you have to pay a price.

In summary, I would say that HTTYD is not really all that original. But the story is told in a very engaging and entertaining way. You can’t help but enjoy it.

Verdict: recommended.

19. February 2010

Stepfather of the Animation Age

Filed under: Animation,Commentary,general,movies,TV — jensaltmann @ 10:20
Tags: , , , ,

My wife and I translate Japanese anime for a living. This month, we had worked on two very different anime series. One was from the early 1980s, the other was from 2009. My wife asked me about the target groups for those two shows. Specifically, the ages. Because the anime from the 1980s was much, much simpler. Not just the design or the technical aspects. The voice actors made far less effort towards realism, there were hardly any sounds like sighs or grunts or groans. The stories were simple and straightforward. The new show was essentially a regular action-adventure show, only animated instead of live-action. The characters and themes, the entire storyline, were complex and thought through. I guessed that the old show would be tagged for ages 12 and up, while the minimum age for the new show would be set as 16.

Animation really isn’t for kids anymore. It used to be, though, when I was young. Back then, animation was for children. And rightly so. There were programs like Sealab 2020 and Star Trek the Animated Series and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Or, if you prefer, Scooby Doo and Casper. Or even Captain Future. The following decade saw shows like Thundercats or Transformers. But even in the 1980s, these shows were fairly simple matters. By todays standards, they were childish.

Disney had absolute dominion of the feature animation market, and made sure that their animated movies were suitable for even the youngest children.

When you grew into your teens, you had become too old for animation. At least you wouldn’t admit to liking it. But that was okay, animation didn’t seem to age with you, so you left it behind for the younger generation.

These days, however, most animation is on a level where adults can enjoy it as much as children. I am not only talking about anime, which has grown up considerably. Or would you let a child watch something as scary, complex and bizarre as Paranoia Agent?

Instead, modern animation is written on different levels. The Incredibles, Up, Wall-E have layers that a child can enjoy, while adults can enjoy these movies as well, if for different reasons. Even the standard Disney animated movie is far more complex and even violent than its predecessors.

What happened?

Now, bear in mind that I don’t have insider knowledge, so I can’t know for certain. I’m operating from my own memory here, and I can only speak for the western world. I’m sure that in Japan, anime simply became increasingly adult and complex to meet the demands of their evolving marketplace. I imagine it was a process similar to the increasing complexity of US comic books.

I believe that what happened here in the west was Ralph Bakshi. Fritz the Cat

Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, to name just three of his earlier works, were quite anarchistic and subversive films that used animation as a form of expression. The films taught their audience that just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it has to be for children.

When Bakshi served the audiences with The Lord of the Rings (1978)

and Fire and Ice (1983),

he went beyond the fringe movements and entered the mainstream. Suddenly, everyone got to see that animation was capable of a lot of the same things as live-action movies. Teenagers, who used to think that animation was beneath them, rediscovered a whole new world.

If you look at the release dates of these movies, one thing becomes obvious: the people who were young when Bakshi’s movies came out are now themselves working in animation. (Even if, like me, they only translate anime.) Modern animation doesn’t just reflect the different technological possibilities, it also reflects the altered perspective of a generation.

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