Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Back Bat Pulp Review

Here I’m back again with another pulp review, this time “The Black Bat,” a masked avenger not unlike Batman, but very different all the same. I’ve been through the three volumes of new stories at Airship 27 by now and I really, really liked him. Not to mention I think he might actually make a good movie hero as well. Perhaps a better one than Batman, if done well.

So who or what is the Black Bat and why do I think he’s better than Batman? Well, he’s cooler and hanging out with quite some interesting characters. Let’s do a bit of a comparison first (I’m going to use the basics of Batman, who had a lot of iterations over time).

Name and occupation:

  • The Black Bat: Anthony ‘Tony’ Quinn, lawyer
  • Batman: Bruce Wayne, millionaire and playboy


  • The Black Bat: Carol Baldwin, Butch O’Leary, Silk Kirby
  • Batman: Alfred, several Robins, several Batgirls (and assorted others)

Origin Story:

  • The Black Bat: blinded in court while still working as DA in NYC, later on had an eye transplant (rather a cornea transplant), regained his sight and gained the ability to see in absolute darkness, decided to use his new ability to fight crime
  • Batman: was forced to watch the death of his parents through the hands of a petty criminal, grew up training his body and became a vigilante

The interesting thing for me about Tony Quinn is that he, despite no longer being blind, still pretends to be just that. It serves several purposes: many people aren’t as careful around a blind person and Tony sees more than just perfectly well behind his dark glasses and he’s less likely to be considered for the Black Bat. There is one person, however, who is absolutely sure Tony is the Black Bat and hence tries to trap him at every chance: Lieutenant McGrath from the NYPD. However, McGrath is no bad person at all and there are times when he and the Black Bat work together against a greater evil. At least the new series has no strong recurring villain on one level with the Batman’s Joker, but the villains nevertheless vary greatly, from your average mobster over a German superhero-turned-villain to people with the ability to light someone up from high up in the sky. Still, everything stays in the realm of science, at least by pulp standards. There is nothing truly supernatural.

The interesting thing about the Black Bat’s posse is that all of them have a very personal connection to Tony. Carol Baldwin is the woman who offered him her father’s eyes for the transplant after her father, a small-town sheriff in the mid-west, was killed in action. She stayed with Tony, they are in love, but won’t start a relationship while Tony is still the Bat (which is actually pretty standard in pulp). Carol rarely gets treated as the damsel in distress and rarely stays in distress for long - she’s trained with firearms and Tony relies on her just as much as on the two guys in his posse. Butch O’Leary is officially Tony’s driver and a former price boxer. He’s the one for the physical work. Silk Kirby is officially Tony’s valet and a former con-man. He’s the one with the underworld connection and the glib tongue. Both have first met with Tony during his work and both are reformed now.

Tony leads the life of a blind man in public, has withdrawn from his post as DA after the attack, and now works as a regular lawyer. He has independent wealth, which means he doesn’t need the job all that much, but he’s not on Bruce Wayne’s level money-wise. He does have a few gimmicks (especially depending on who writes him), but he mostly relies on his highly trained body, his amazing eye sight (which allows him to fight in a completely dark room) and heightened senses, and his twin pistols - unlike Bruce, he does use guns. He does, however, also dress completely in black, wears a tight-fitting hood (which mostly serves to hide his identity and the very telling acid scars around his eyes), and a wide, bat-like cape which he also uses to glide on air currents.

What I like about the stories is a lot, actually. I like the characters. Tony Quinn with his sense of humour and constant acting (to convince people he’s blind), Butch with his quick temper, Silk with his even darker humour, the confident Carol who isn’t cowed at all by her male companions. I like the stories, which usually don’t go as high-risk as with “Secret Agent X” or “Jim Anthony” (there’s even a crossover between Tony and Jim in one of the books), but are full of twists and turns and closer to crime stories than to pure adventure. Tony is using his mind just as much as his body and this shows in the stories. Bruce is often called ‘a great detective,’ but these days, he rarely detects.

“The Black Bat” is a nice one, if you like your pulp stories without too much exaggeration and enjoy the main character playing cat-and-mouse with the police and with society. The stories are good, even though the formatting of Volume 2 leaves a lot to be desired.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Rocket Launcher Incident

This is the first of The Stories That Weren't ... scenes from my series which weren't included, because they have the wrong POV character (as with this one), wouldn't fit with the tone (I also have a time-travel story written and the Knight Agency is as realistic as is possible for an espionage romp), or just plain have nothing to do with the main characters. Enjoy...

Zachary Brock in

The Rocket Launcher Incident

He definitely had fucked up big time - in more than one way. Brock didn’t struggle much while he was dragged along the neon-lit hallways of the underground hideout. He regretted deeply going in as a scout himself. He was a good leader and good soldier, no question about that, but he’d never been much of a scout. He neither had the build nor the talents for that, which was why he usually asked for Jane for such missions. There was no doubt about it - Jane definitely would not be dragged to her doom at the moment. She’d probably have silently killed a few henchmen already and be on her way to their actual target, securing the approach.
He glanced over his right shoulder and saw the enhanced ambling along behind the group of henchmen who dragged him to their boss. He hated enhanced men - he hated them with an intensity he usually was not capable of. He hated feeling like a little kid in their grip, despite his six-foot-three body. He hated being thrown through the room like a ragdoll, despite being a fully trained soldier. And he knew Jane felt the same way about them. Only - she wouldn’t have been caught by that one. She would have tricked and trapped him. Because, unlike Brock himself, she was good at scouting and at not getting caught. At least she was good at not staying caught. Does it count as getting caught, if you do it on purpose? Probably not.
The hallway opened into a large underground room and a nasty memory of his meeting with the Morrigan flashed through Brock’s mind. That woman had been a nasty piece of work and he had no illusions about his fate, had he been forced to face her on his own. Like I’m now facing that man. No Jane waiting in the shadows to come in and help. I fucked up really, really big there… The henchmen forced him to his knees in front of a throne-like structure which could give the Morrigan’s grand throne room a run for its money. And Brock wasn’t sure whether this self-proclaimed Ice King was any better than the self-proclaimed goddess of war had been.
“We have a visitor, I see.” The man was sitting on the throne with his feet planted far apart and his arms resting on the arm rests - a power pose. “How many more soldiers are waiting outside?”
Brock looked him in the face. “You don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?”
“Not immediately, that would be boring.” A cold smiled twisted the Ice King’s lips.
Another sadist. Jane would like that, but I don’t. “Not even eventually.”
“Ah, a hero … or someone who thinks he is one. I like your type … I like seeing them fall from grace.”
Behind Brock, someone screamed in pure, unadulterated fear. He turned around and saw the enhanced completely freeze up. How did that happen? The only way to freeze them up is the Neit Drug and we soldiers still don’t have that.
As if to answer his question, a black shadow dropped from somewhere overhead and landed gracefully amidst the henchmen. A knife flashed and only seconds later the henchmen were down. Even Brock’s mind wasn’t quick enough to analyse the movements, so he knew who was under that hood. An electric blue energy beam shot past Brock and at the shadow, but it missed by ages. The shadow danced out of its way with ease, then threw the knife. A pained wail and the clatter of something heavy hitting the floor made Brock face the Ice King again, seeing the knife hilt protrude from the man’s right shoulder. That hurts… Heavy steps approached the room, but the shadow didn’t move. A moment later, Brock could see why - his team was entering the throne room through the same hallway he’d been dragged through.
He turned to the shadow who was walking towards him. “What are you doing here? Not that I’m not grateful…”
“Well, Steven decided I should go in despite not having been outright asked by you. Sir Leonard requested me being on standby, so I was in the vicinity anyway.”
“What exactly did Steven say?”
Jane took off her hood. “You don’t want to know that, trust me.
“Humour me.”
“His precise words were ‘that moron is going to fuck things up and get himself into deep shit, so go in, clear the way, and drag his sorry ass out of there.’ I kid you not.”
At this, Brock winced. Steven normally isn’t the type for this sort of language. “He’s still vey pissed off, isn’t he?”
She folded her arms in front of her chest. “He’s been banned from the shooting range … once it’s repaired, of course … for half a year, Brock. That is almost on a level with his suit and you know how pissed off he still is about that.”
“Then why did he sent you in so early? Why not let me suffer for a bit? He knows I wouldn’t have divulged any information in a hurry.”
“Luckily, his friendship with you … and mine … surpasses his anger. He’s very much in control of his negative emotions and he holds friendships in high regard because he has few of them.”
“Well, he is right … I did fuck up.”
She rolled her eyes. “No shit, Sherlock. Brock, you never, ever, under any circumstances imaginable, tell Steven Quinn not to shoot something. You never, ever, under any circumstances imaginable tell him he’s too old to shoot a rocket launcher on the shooting range. Unless, of course, you want him to shoot a rocket launcher on the shooting range against better wisdom.”
He made a weak attempt to justify himself: “He’s almost seventy … and quite some soldiers have problems controlling that specific launcher.”
“He is the Reaper, Brock. He controls every weapon mankind has come up with or can come up with in the future. And, honestly, I could have fired that thing just as reliably. But I wouldn’t have done that in an enclosed space… Neither would Steven have, hadn’t you been so adamant about his age. And now he’s banned from the range for half a year, all because of you.”
He hung his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Tell him about that, once we’re out of here with that idiot.”
He lifted his head. “Well, at least you proved Sir Howard right: the queen can and will take the king.”
She mustered the Ice King, now in the hands of Higgs and Connor, and smirked. “Yes, I’ve proven that point about chess. Come on, Brock, I borrowed a set of keys. Let’s get those cuffs off and you to Steven so you can apologize properly.”

Saturday, 23 December 2017

"The Mummy" (1999) and How to Make a Fitting Villain

“The Mummy” from 1999 has many weaknesses. It wasn’t even scary then and surely isn’t scary today (even though its effects have aged well on the whole). But it also has one big strength (apart from being a refreshingly honest B-movie): it matches the hero and the villain of its tale immensely well.

You see, the hero of “The Mummy” isn’t Rick O’Connell, it’s Evie Carnahan. Everything in the movie (apart from Imhotep’s origin story, of course) only happens because of her. It’s her agency which drives the story from beginning to end. Her brother Jonathan and Rick, who is both sidekick and love interest to her, only help with making those plans come true.
Evie is the one who wants to prove herself worthy of the Bembridge Scholars - who officially tell her she doesn’t have experience, but we all know that old men’s club means ‘you have the wrong gender.’ So when Jonathan shows her a small artefact he has acquired and she finds a map to the City of the Dead in it, she takes the chance, barters for the release of the only man who knows how to find it (Rick O’Connell, who is about to be executed), and leads the small expedition force (combined of Evie, Rick, and Jonathan) to their destination. She isn’t cowed by the attack on the ship or in the city itself and when the overwhelming firepower of a second expedition, this one made up of Americans, forces her to pull back, she devises a plan to literally undercut the others and approach the area where she suspects the Book of the Dead to be from below. She reads from the book and thus brings Imhotep back to life. And she insists on putting everything in order again.

But this post is not about Evie (I might make one about her one day, though). It’s about how well Imhotep was designed to work with Evie as the hero. A hero can only be as good as the problem they’re facing. So, what about him?
From the very first meeting between him and Rick (which is seconds after his first meeting with Evie), it’s clear for the audience that pure physical strength will not conquer the mummy. Rick can shoot him as often as he wants - as an un-dead creature, Imhotep can’t be killed that way. He’s also exceedingly powerful, as becomes clear later on. The curse put on him before his burial makes Imhotep a force of nature, capable of controlling insects and people alike, dishing out a plague, controlling wind, water, sand, and his own shape. He can be scared away with a cat as long as he hasn’t completely regenerated, but once his regeneration is complete, the kitten isn’t going to be of any help.
This doesn’t just serve to make Imhotep a scary enemy, even though it certainly makes him one. It also serves to make it clear that neither the Americans with their firepower, nor Rick as a former legionary are a match for this being. Even the secret group which has guarded his tomb for so long are incapable of putting him back into it, once he has been released and awoken. Pure power, as any of the male characters in the movie might wield it, will do them no good and it’s shown several times. Imhotep is cunning, strong, and basically invincible as long as he’s under that curse and in his un-dead state.
Nobody on the other side can match Imhotep’s power (which is as it should be - the villain should always have supreme power, that’s what we call a healthy balance in story writing). But someone can match his cunning: Evie. For Imhotep, she’s the way to bring his love Ankh-Su-Namun back to life, because he needs a female body and Evie is the first female he lays eyes on after he’s resurrected. He has focused completely on her, instead of choosing another woman later. There would be enough of them in Cairo, just saying…
Evie doesn’t defeat Imhotep through brute force. That would be unrealistic and illogical. She defeats him through knowledge, which is her discipline as a librarian. She realizes that he can’t be defeated as long as he’s un-dead - so she cites from the Book of Life and makes him mortal again, enabling Rick to kill him. But who does the actual stabbing is actually a minor question, because at this point, everyone fighting Imhotep could have done so, especially before he has realized what actually happened to him.

What can we take away from this? Imhotep makes a perfect villain for this story not only because he’s so powerful, but because his powers make it impossible to defeat him merely through force. Since the hero of the story is not a person with a lot of physical power, but someone with a strong mind, this makes it clear why nobody else in this story can defeat the villain. There is nobody other powerful enough.
Whenever you design your villain, you need to look at your hero and figure out where that character’s strength and weaknesses lie. Ideally, the villain can make use of the hero’s weaknesses, but the hero’s strength will play into the villain’s weakness. Imhotep’s weakness is that he is only that invulnerable while the curse is on him and he’s still un-dead. Once he becomes mortal again, he can be killed, like every other being. His strength is his immense power which allows him to threaten Evie several times during the movie and, indeed, take control over her for a short time, even though she delivers herself into his hands willingly.

There is no running away from Imhotep, because the curse will in time destroy the whole world. There is no bartering with him - he proves he’s not trustworthy. The only choices are to fight him or to die. For Evie, there isn’t even a choice, her own morals force her to fight him, because it was her fault he awoke. This means they are set up as opposites from the beginning. Yet, Imhotep is given a compelling reason for not simply killing her - he wants to use her to bring the love of his life back. He chooses Evie right away and he can’t or won’t change his plans for her. So when he seems to win (because he has Evie up next to the mummy of Ankh-Su-Namun and the ritual has started), the final confrontation begins. It’s a high-stake fight, because it’s not just about Evie’s life. If Imhotep isn’t stopped, the curse will destroy mankind, even if Imhotep and the resurrected Ankh-Su-Namun should come out of it alive. It’s not just about saving one person, it’s about stopping the end of the world.

No matter whether you start out with the villain or the hero of your story, you need to make sure the other side will match them. Set two goals which oppose each other, make it sure not both of them can reach their goal. And make it clear early on why only the hero can fight the villain. This is the lesson from 1999s “The Mummy.”

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Despicable Me 3 Review

This is a review of “Despicable Me 3,” but with a lot of words about the rest of the series, too. At the beginning, I must admit that I have a soft spot for Gru, because he’s a bit of a shady character - not really evil, not even in the first movie, not really good, either. But I also really love the three movies of the “Despicable Me” series (and no, “Minions” is not part of that). Why is that so?

First of all, all three movies give us a different story. Unlike other movies, where the sequels were, essentially, only rehashing the story, the life of Gru and his girls (and now Lucy, too) moves on. In the first movie, Gru discovers his love for the three orphaned girls he originally used for a plan and ends up adopting them for real. In the second movie, Gru goes legal to be a better example for his girls and meets cool secret agent Lucy whom he falls in love with (not to mention he ends up working for the Anti-Villain League for a bit). And the third movie goes on from there, when Gru is fired by the new boss and suddenly is tempted by crime again.

The big topic of all three movies in the series, though, is not villainy, but family. We are introduced to Gru’s mother in the first movie already and it’s pretty clear from the beginning that there are much better parents around (and few worse ones). Gru however, once he really starts to bond with Margo, Edith, and Agnes, has an actual talent for parenting. So first Gru becomes a father when adopting the girls for real. Then he meets Lucy who becomes not only his wife, but also a surrogate mother for his children. It’s clear they all like her, so this is a very good fit. And with the third movie, we actually are introduced to Gru’s twin brother Dru and, indirectly (since he’s dead), to Gru’s father, who did not leave the family because of disappointment (about Gru), as his mother always claimed. Actually, Gru’s father was mightily proud of the supervillain his son had become, because Gru and Dru come from a long line of villains.

Setting the Minions story-arch aside (they start a munity, are imprisoned, and come back for the finale), “Despicable Me 3” does a very fine job of spinning the story of Gru and his family further. On one side, there’s the sudden unemployment both Gru and Lucy have to deal with, then there’s the unexpected invitation to meet Gru’s twin brother - whom Gru had never heard of before, but whose existence his mother confirmed when asked. The trip to Dru’s place on an imaginary island reveals that Dru is definitely rich. Not only does he have a butler, the family has basically ruled the economy of the island for ages from their mansion. And the family has also done evil deeds for ages, but Dru (the twin their father took along) proved a failure. So he asks Gru to help him become a better villain. This is a very tempting offer for Gru at that time, as you can surely imagine: out of work, he’s suddenly presented with a top-notch lair and a lot of fine equipment, not to mention a perfect partner in crime in his twin brother.
At the same time, Lucy gets her own story-arch about becoming a mother. The problem is not Agnes, who has always wanted a mother and obviously adopted Lucy right away. It’s not Edith, either, who is very pragmatic and goes along with things. It’s Margo, the oldest of the girls, who was a surrogate mother to Agnes especially (and Edith to a certain degree) before. And Lucy doesn’t succeed right away at being a mother, but proves herself capable and worthy, nevertheless. By the end and the big confrontation with Big Bad Balthazar Bratt, she has found her feet as a mother and not just as the agent.

It’s also interesting how the role of the villain changes from movie to movie.
Vector, the antagonist in the first movie, is not really all that threatening. He has risen to power mostly through the protection of his father (who leads the Bank of Evil, where villains go to get a loan). Vector has no real plan of his own, but latches onto that of Gru, developed over decades, to be the first to steal the moon. Vector is, when all is said and done, a catalyst which helps Gru to realize where his real priorities lie: not in villainy, but in a family with the girls.
El Macho, the villain in the second movie (and, yes, the distinction between antagonist and villain is on purpose), poses far more of a threat. While Gru has retired to raise his girls and become a better role-model for them. El Macho disappeared for his own reasons, faking his death. He has raised a son of his own and some dialogue bits suggest the boy’s mother might have died or left her husband (since El Macho speaks of heartbreak, I think death is more likely). El Macho has not given up on villainy, though, and is in the process of seeking world domination by turning the Minions (which in many ways are almost like children for Gru, too, as many scenes throughout the movies show) into mindless monsters. He brings Gru and Lucy together, though, so he, too serves in making Gru’s family bigger.
Balthazar Bratt is both the reason for Gru being fired (although it’s shown more as a show of strength from the new boss of the AVL) and for Gru going back to being a hero. He is definitely not a family man (Vector has a visible father, El Macho a son), but lives alone with his memories of being an 80s child star and the robot which starred next to him in the show Evil Bratt. From his tools, his looks, and his plans, it’s pretty clear he got stuck in this ‘best part’ of his life. Balthazar provides more danger than both his predecessors, as it were. El Macho never gets to release the changed Minions and Vector never really threatens mankind by stealing the moon. Balthazar marches on Hollywood with his gigantic mech. He threatens Gru’s children, his brother, and Gru himself (which leads to clumsy Dru becoming very heroic). And even though he doesn’t win, of course, he proves himself a very good Big Bad.

In the end, and this is, of course, spoiler territory, Gru goes back to hunting villains with Lucy - and Dru becomes his special villain to hunt. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see from their interactions, that they will not take things to the highest level. They will not seek each other’s destruction. The credits show them trying to outsmart each other, which is a rather amiable way to fight. They stay brothers and family, although on different sides of the law - and the Minions find a new master who does villainy with them in the rather good-natured Dru.

Is “Despicable Me 3” the best movie ever? No. Is it a good movie to watch and fun, even if you’re an adult (who enjoys animated movies)? Definitely. Gru has yet to disappoint me, so far his stories have been entertaining and have been on rotation in my DVD drive more than once.