Flash Gordon! An Intro into Space Opera

It has recently been announced that Fox, now a subsidiary of Disney, has hired Taika Waititi to develop an animated feature about Flash Gordon. For those of you that enjoyed his earlier work with Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok this will come as welcome news because he has already demonstrated an aptitude for space opera.

In the late 20th century, following the success of STAR WARS space opera became one of the most visible of science fiction sub-genres. Just in the decade following we saw blatant rip-offs like Battlestar Galactica and the more bizarre Star Crash. The literary origins of the genre began to develop in the 19th century when the different components, like space travel, alien civilizations, and futuristic settings were appearing in different stories. In 1928 all of these finally found their way into the first of the Skylark series of stories by E. E. Smith. Space travel! Interplanetary war! Questionable literary value! The stage was set for space opera to flourish.

Intended to mock the serialized melodramatic nature of soap operas, the term “space opera” was introduced by writer and fan Wilson Tucker. Though perhaps a bit more action-heavy, the term fits well because whether it’s Buck Rogers or The Princess of Mars it’s all pretty much melodrama in space. Space opera doesn’t usually involve itself much into the speculative nature of so-called hard science fiction though it does often rely on super advanced technology as plot devices. Since intergalactic space travel is, at the time of this writing, a physical impossibility, you sometimes have to take liberties with your star hopping adventurers and thrill seekers.

The comic strip Flash Gordon came into being in 1934, the creation of Alex Raymond. It was essentially an imitator and then solid competitor of the Buck Rogers comic strip. Buck Rogers, like much of the early space opera, came from a pulp magazine. Like the Skylark series it first appeared in Amazing Stories. My first exposure to Flash came not from the 1980 feature but from reruns of the animated series by Filmation. I wouldn’t come to see the film or the movie serials until I reached high school.

People love space adventures. Whether it’s Space 1999 or Cowboy Bebop or Guardians of the Galaxy or Saga action and romance in a spacey setting will always find an audience. I myself love space battles, outre costumes, and weird space aliens. If I could I could become an expert on any single genre it would likely be space operra.

Like I said in the title, this is simply the briefest introduction to space opera because it is a hugely important facet in the tapestry of geek culture. There have been at least a dozen references to creators and creations in this post and each one of them may, at some time, get more space for discussion or examination by Be A Better Geek. Right now the goal is to just plant seeds. Feel free to follow BABG on Twitter @better_geek and please SHARE THIS POST!

Ready to Batdance!

June 24, 1989…it was 30 years ago today that I saw “BATMAN” for the first time.

As you may remember from my previous post that my life was forever altered by seeing Tim Burton’s “BATMAN” that fateful night but the transformation had already begun. I was not going into this movie blind.

I was 12-years-old at the time and, for better or for worse, a voracious TV watcher. Mostly I watched cartoons and reruns of shows from the 60s and 70s. On one of the syndicated television stations in Atlanta I could watch both “The Monkees” AND the magnificent “Batman” starring Adam West and Burt Ward. So even though I had not yet picked up a single Batman comic I had a baseline familiarity with the some of the main characters inhabiting Gotham City.

I don’t know that there was much of the cynicism that exists today in media consumption of the general public. I would guess that the number of people who first saw promotional material and the famous “BATMAN” movie trailer and said, “man, that’s gonna suck. They’re not doing the character justice” or any such prejudgement was probably less than 10. There was no internet to break and certainly no forum for people to build up a feedback pit of vitriol like there is now. Americans, by and large, were hyped about this movie coming out. And I was no different. In fact, I was so hyped that I dressed up for the occasion. And while I don’t have any pictures of myself from that night but I do remember exactly what I had on.

I had on this hat:

I had on this t-shirt:

On my YELLOW SUSPENDERS I had affixed these buttons:

And on my feet I wore these shoes:

I don’t currently own any of these highly fashionable items now but if you ever want to put together a 1989 Chuck Goes To See “BATMAN” cosplay then you have all the necessary tools to go forth and succeed. Sadly I don’t recall what kind of pants I was wearing but it was most likely grey cargo pants from Mervyn’s. You’re welcome.

Obviously when I saw the movie I loved it. I still do. It doesn’t hold my attention quite the same way it did when I was 12, of course, but now that I have worked in the film industry for a few years and have a greater understanding of the work that goes into a movie I am even more bowled over by the production design, set construction, and miniatures than when I was a youth. It’s a winner.

An added note: I just happened upon the 1989 Warner Bros. “BATMAN” Merchandising catalog on a Batman collectible’s blog, Under the Giant Penny. Imagine owning that airbrushed, rhinestone “BATMAN” jacket! These catalogs were passed out at the theater before the movie and I would wager that was the first time I became familiar with the name Bob Kane.

1989 The Number, Another Summer

Sunday is June 23rd and you know what that means! For those of you that went on dates in high school here’s a hint:

Imagine how difficult it was putting together the jigsaw puzzle I got for Christmas that year.

That’s right! It’s the 30th anniversary of the release of Warner Brothers smash hit movie “BATMAN!” I don’t think it’s necessary to go into all of the stuff about the movie itself. You can making-of documentaries or read about it in any of the many articles you can read by Googling “remember Tim Burton’s ‘BATMAN.'” But I will highlight what it’s impact had on me.

From a purely cinematic level it introduced me to some people with whom I would become obsessed with throughout high school, namely Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. I had already seen “PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE” and “BETTLEJUICE” in the theater but it was this movie in particular that captured my attention. Had I not burdened myself with evangelical religiosity as a youth I probably would have embraced the aesthetic of Burton’s visuals and Elfman’s sounds and been labeled a goth. Instead I attempted this awkward and unsuccessful balancing act of being the person I wanted to be with the person I thought I should be. As they are both pretty important figures to geek culture I will probably discuss them both individually later on.

But “BATMAN” had an influence on me far greater than increasing my awareness of those artists. It was the movie that really solidified my love of superheroes and it really made me deep dive into comic books. I had read a handful of comics at that time and I already had a subscription to “Groo the Wanderer” coming in the mail but this was the experience that prompted me to go around the corner from the General Cinema theater that showed the movie and into Titan Games & Comics. It was there that I picked up my first Batman comic which was also my first trade paperback: the collected “Batman: A Death in the Family.” The die was cast, my fate was sealed. The summer of 1989 was the breakthrough year.

I did not get to see “BATMAN” on June 23rd, 1989. We were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant that night. But at that dinner my parents and I made plans to see the film the next night. So for me my day of celebration will be June 24th. Celebrating 30 years of “BATMAN” will probably be less of an endurance test than when I celebrated 30 years of “STAR WARS.” That was a rough one.

Self Awareness and Max Landis in the #MeToo Era

I really didn’t intend to talk about anything heavy this early in the game but my hand has been forced by current events.

In the past Max Landis has been able to skate passed any allegations about sexual and mental abuse for a number of reasons but it seems that now there is heavy weight to the accusations being made against him. In short 8 women have come out saying that he treated them terribly and he is an all around awful person to women. As this type of allegation almost always proves to be true, especially with multiple accusers, I’m going to presume the truth in this matter.

There are many reasons this matters to the geek community and no, it’s not because he’s attached to science fiction and horror movies that are scheduled to be produced. It’s because this is a reflection of our society at large and our place in it.

In effort to encourage and guide other people to being better geeks it is imperative that I be willing to show light on my own experiences. In the wake of the #metoo movement I shared on social media, Facebook and Twitter specifically, that I was myself guilty of awful behavior. I’m not going to equate my actions, like forcing a kiss or being a manipulative “nice guy” to the kinds of things that Landis is accused of because I think that is disrespectful to his alleged victims (and because I quickly experienced guilt and remorse for my deeds and vowed to be a better person). But I will say that my actions fell on a spectrum of disrespect for women and that if I want my voice to be valid I have to keep it real with you and myself.

One of the many things that motivates someone like Landis or anyone else who tries to take advantage of others, whether it’s as serious as rape or simply a dangerous traffic maneuver, is a sense of entitlement. If you think you deserve something because of who you are rather than as a reward for positive actions then you have a sense of entitlement. And frankly, geeks can be loaded with entitlement…

Back to the Neighborhood

After my last post in which I talked about seeing Lou Ferrigno being made up as the Hulk on “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” I thought about that memory and wondered if I would be able to find the clip. Not surprisingly it took me about 90 seconds to find it online.

A quick Google search of “mr rogers hulk” took me to a website that catalogs all of the episodes of “MRN” and from there I was able to further search for that specific episode. And to my surprise it turned out to be an even better find than I could possibly imagine. As it turns out they did TWO episodes in which they visit the set of “The Incredible Hulk!” And further research shows that they set the visit up 2 episodes prior when Bill Bixby calls Mr Rogers!

The first part of the visit, episode 1468, has Fred and Mr. McFeely visiting the sound stage where they are greeted by Bill Bixby and later they watch a scene being filmed. And in the second part, episode 1469, they return to the studio and Mr. McFeely himself shoots the home movie of Lou being made up. It was astonishing. The home movie was just as I remembered it. But, truthfully, that wasn’t the part that resonated with the most as an adult.

Mr. Rogers and Bill Bixby spoke to each other in calm, pleasant tones about 2 important lessons that I think get lost on many fans of fantastical fiction like ourselves. One of them is that of anger. We don’t want to be defined by our anger because, like the Hulk, it can change us as people. And the other is to remember that movies, television, and everything like it is make believe. It can entertain us, it can inspire us. But we mustn’t let it interfere with our understanding of reality. Going forward I will refer back to these themes.

Another poignant moment came when Mr. Rogers and Mr McFeely spoke with Lou Ferrigno himself. Lou spoke of his hardships growing up and becoming deaf in his youth. It made me think of all of the times that Fred taught us about both empathy and determination. I don’t know if the lessons of anger management and empathy really sunk in while I was young. I certainly wasn’t graced with much natural empathy and try to develop it now. And as for anger? Well, I have had a transformation in that regard but I attribute the changes to therapy rather than gamma radiation.

Below are links to the episodes themselves if you want to, as they say, get the feels:
Episode 1468: https://archive.org/details/youtube-EEWQVqXxPk0
Episode 1469: https://archive.org/details/youtube-MRtb_ITen14

A Geek Is Born: Part 3

Did you watch “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood?” I’m sure even if you didn’t you watched a documentary about it or have seen clips so you know who Fred Rogers was. But do you remember any of the other characters on the show? Do you remember the Speedy Deliveryman Mr. McFeely? He would bring props or letters to Fred and they could use it to teach some sort of lesson. Sometimes he would bring home movies.

In one of these home movies Mr. McFeely brought to Fred it was a trip to the set of the TV show “The Incredible Hulk.” It’s wild they even did this because I would think that “Hulk” was too adult for a lot of the kids watching but it was a huge show and even though I must have been 4 or 5 I remember watching it. There’s a lot for me to unpack about that show which I’ll get to another time but right now I want to talk about that home movie.

What I distinctly remember about this home movie was that it was silent and it was just Mr. Rogers and Mr. McFeely describing what they were watching. And what they were watching was the moment directed my future. They were showing Lou Ferrigno being made up as the Hulk. I vividly remember them gluing on his big forehead and his nose. I remember them painting him green and then applying powder to remove the shine. I remember them slipping on the green wig and Lou turning into the Hulk. I don’t remember anything else about that movie but I remember this: I just saw someone making a monster. I know that the technical term is “special make up effects” but for me it’s always going to be MONSTER MAKE UP. And it happened right there. From there on out I was hooked on the fantastic and I owe it all to “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.”

Flashback to me watching “Return of the Jedi.” As amazing as the story was to me, as compelling as the characters were to this 6-year-old boy, what latched onto my brain was that it was puppeteers and make up people making this fantasy a reality. In future posts I’ll talk about creators and creations. But I also want to talk about the world around them that we, the fans, created. And I want your input. I want you to engage with this site. Follow @better_geek on Twitter. Follow the “Be A Better Geek” Facebook page. And PLEASE tell other people about this site.

A Geek Is Born: Part 2

Even though Lawrenceville, Georgia was the county seat of Gwinnett County it was still a pretty small city in 1983. The population was about to grow rapidly but at that time Lawrenceville was small enough that it had one movie theater which was located in the same shopping center as Roses and a pharmacy that later sold discounted Atari cartridges. For years, before the mall arrived and with it multiple theaters, it was THE place for the Porterfields to go see movies. We went there in 1981 to see “E.T., the Extraterrestrial” which was my first memory of a movie. But even more powerful to me was in 1983 when my dad took me to see “Return of the Jedi.” I don’t need to tell you much about the movie itself because it’s likely one you’ve already seen, but as a 6-year-old kid who’s only connection with “STAR WARS” was playing with his older brother’s action figures, it was a mind altering experience. After watching that Luke Skywalker became my first hero of fiction. Darth Vader was the coolest character I ever saw. And the Emperor would, from that day forward, represent my measuring stick for an evil character. I was utterly captivated by the space battles, the swashbuckling, and the wild creatures. I can go on and on about what the content of the movie did to me. And given that “STAR WARS” became my favorite cultural artifact I likely will at some point. But perhaps even more important than the characters of the film was the introduction to me my first glimpse of the scope of special effects. Yes, even though I was only 6 I recognized that the creatures, space ships, and lightsabers were special effects. And in my next post, I’ll tell you what was likely the Big Bang of my geekdom.