“What’s wrong [with the comics industry]? … In the late ’70s, all the comic fans decided to get into the business. The problem is, it was a bunch of superhero fans. And an industry that had, up until that point, catered to almost every genre imaginable slowly and slowly was narrowed down and boiled down to a point where it was superhero comics, and that’s all there were. And then they all were writing these comics for each other — not for a mass market, not for young people. And then, as they aged, the content aged to suit their needs. And the idea is, when you’re an adult, you’re supposed to turn to other forms of entertainment, maybe, or appreciate comics for what they were. But that hasn’t been the case. So now we have superheroes that rape, we have heroin addicts, we have all this kind of bullshit that’s been heaped onto these characters that were meant to entertain kids and give them a little sense of right and wrong and adventure. I think it’s so sad. And you see what the strategy has done. … In 1972, Jimmy Olsen comics sold 200,000 copies a month, and it was canceled because that wasn’t enough to keep it going. These days, the best-selling book can barely scrape past 70,000 — never mind the worst-selling books. So let’s take a look at that strategy that’s been applied to this business. How’d it work out? Not too good. And the less people that read ‘em, the more expensive they have to be, and the more cryptic they have to be to cater to that tiny little market they’ve got. That’s what’s wrong.”—
So I signed the deal for my next book, The Caped Crusade: The Rise of Batman and the Triumph of Nerd Culture back in May, and it’s due at Simon & Schuster on May 1st.
Well-meaning friends and relations ask me a lot these days how the book’s coming along, which is a perfectly polite, idle-chit-chatty sort of question that nonetheless opens up a vortex of Lovecraftian dread in the nethermost depths of my very soul. This is because I am a lazy, shiftless and whiny baby who cannot help but see the question as a withering critique of my lazy shiftless whiny babyosity.
Also, like a lot of writers I know, I find I’ve developed a weirdly ascetic and self-recriminatory mindset, which only considers the time I spend hunched over the laptop pounding out sentences as “working on” the book. All the other time I spend researching? Interviewing people? Watching the occasional movie with F? DOES NOT COUNT. IS JUST MORE PROCRASTINATION, MORE OF YOUR SICKENING INDOLENCE. YOU ARE A SOFT, QUERULOUS, WEAK-WILLED STREAK OF WORMSNOT. MY GORGE RISES AT YOUR FLESHY SELF-INDULGENT —
Anyway, that. Pretty much that. You get the idea.
The book I pitched last spring was a straightforward history of Batman, like the one I did for Superman. The book I ended up selling was, thankfully, considerably different.
Peter O’Toole died yesterday, and you’ll be reading a lot today about his most indelible achievements, his definitive roles. His defiantly enigmatic yet supremely empathetic portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia. His winking self-parody in My Favorite Year. His strangely grounded monomania in The Stuntman. His never-to-be-matched, virtuosic cinematic twofer, playing Henry II in both Beckett and The Lion in Winter in such a way as to suggest how one becomes the other. (And my favorite O’Toole performance ever, as Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, in The Ruling Class — a broad film whose satire is sharpened immeasurably by having at its center O’Toole’s unerrring, effortless precision.)
Leave such encomiums to the cineastes. Let’s you and me talk Supergirl.
Supergirl is a bad, dumb movie that retains a certain fantastical charm, if you squint.
In Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, I said that “Peter O’Toole looks sheepish as the wise Argo City artist Zaltar — in his quieter moments, he adopts the faraway expression of a man anticipating cocktail hour.”
That wasn’t particularly fair of me. Because even half-assed O’Toole is still game O’Toole. (For the record, this is the faraway expression to which I refer.)
I know. You want to talk about the sweater. Lookit, we all want to talk about the sweater, but we’d be here all day. It’s Cosby by way of Chess King by way of Aunt Miriam’s Hannukkah Party. It hurts, this sweater.
O’Toole plays Zaltar, Argo City’s artist-in-residence, who steals the city’s power source (the Christmas ornament, above) to make some sculpture with his matterwand (the pink Kryptonian glowstick, above) and to create a dragonfly that ruptures Argo City’s protective membrane and dooms the population — unless Kara (Supergirl) can get it back. Look, it’s a weird movie, stay with me.
O’Toole’s in full-on barking fop mode here, and there’s a fun moment when he’s asked how he’ll leave Argo City, and in some early draft of the script he was doubtlessly called upon exposit about the interdimensional pod he’s created which can pass through the “binary chute” that exists as a portal between Argo City’s inner space to the outer space of our universe.
In the film, however, he simply gestures with the glowstick, and says, “In THAT. Through THERE.” Because Peter O’GoddamnToole, is why.
When the glowy orb-power source flies the coop, Zaltar calls after it, leading to one of my favorite moments in the film, becaues O’Toole’s accent turns “Kara! The power source!” to “Kaaa! The pow sauce!”
"Pow sauce" was the name of my favorite BBQ seasoning at this place over in Glover Park, back when I first moved to DC.
Supergirl goes and has adventures (well, she engages in wacky hi-jinx at a girls’ school) and ends up getting sent to the Phantom Zone, where she meets Zaltar again, though by now he’s gone from bad sweater to weird Kente cloth … caftan? … and has become addicted to an intoxicating substance he calls …
Well, he covers it himself, when he offers Kara a spritz from his atomizer, leading to the moment when O’Toole proves his mettle, and makes even the dumbest line of dialogue in a powerfully dumb movie work. The line in question:
(Kara refuses, causing him to deliver the second dumbest line in a powerfully dumb movie:)
Oh, and then he gets eaten by the “Quantum Vortex” look you know what never mind that’s not important. Here’s what’s important.
RIP Peter O’GoddamnToole, you magnificent man. I raise my atomizer to your memory.
I’d say “Squirt, old man,” but that just really grossed me out as I typed it, so we’ll leave it at that.
The movie that had the biggest impact on young, tow-headed me was of course Superman: The Movie, but they’ve talked about it before, and, as some of you may know, I’ve also talked about it before.
On other podcasts.
Like, a lot.
So I chose another, much cheesier movie that occupies a special place in my heart, and pants: 1981’s Clash of the Titans.
You can listen to the WBP episode to hear the hugely funny Cameron Esposito, Rhea Butcher and Ricky Carmona talk to me about this flick, but I wanted to use this space to provide a visual companion to one aspect of it I didn’t get around to discussing.
I speak, of course, of the film’s true and egregiously uncredited star. I refer to its white-hot emotional center, its lynchpin, its charismatic heart.
I speak, as you have likely guessed, of Harry Hamlin’s right nipple.
I call it Gary.
Early on in the film, Hamlin’s Perseus prances around in a loincloth. Both nipples are offered up to the audience’s lascivious gaze, as is only meet.
But once the plot kicks in, he must put aside his Blue-Lagoon chic and find him some more sensible adventurin’ couture. In this case, a plain toga:
Huh. That’s odd. Y’all have seen togas in swords-and-sandals epics before, right? They don’t … fit like that. They generally cover the whole torso, or most of it. But not here.
No: here, the fabric drops waaayy down below the pec, exposing his right nipple to the elements, and our ogles. This is ancient Joppa-by-way-of-Studio 54.
But wait .. he’s getting a costume change, dressing himself for his wedding. Surely he’ll … Ah.
… I see. Hello again, Gary. Good to see you. You’re looking well.
By this time in the film — about halfway through — I always find myself (me! a middle-aged gay dude who has put in his time and earned the RIGHT to perv!) incongruously thinking, “Dude. Harry. Do me a favor? Put that thing away. Seriously. I’m worried you’re gonna snag it on something. Just like maybe slap a sticker on it. Or, you got some masking tape and a coaster? Maybe that.”)
But no, Gary hangs out, balefully staring at us throughout the rest of the film, earning himself more screen time that Burgess Meredith, Laurence Olivier and fucking Bubo combined. He hangs in there all the way to the movie’s joyous, moistened end:
Now, I was a 12-year-old kid when I saw this in theaters. Lascivious thoughts didn’t occur to me — at least, not consciously. (At the time I’d taken to hanging out with the hottest kid in school while telling myself, and others, that the guy in question “has just got this CHARISMA, you know? You just wanna be around him. Hang out. Be his pal.”) (It would be years before I was able to acknowledge that there’d been other things I wanted to do with him, in addition to the above. Most of which involved our swimsuit areas.)
Regardless. This is OLD SKOOL Clash of the Titans, and it was a Movie That Made Me.
I leave you with this shot of Laurence Olivier’s Zeus, impatiently waiting for the shrooms to kick in at the Pink Floyd Laser Spectacular in the Anaheim House of Blues.
What I love about it is how it’s engineered to help you discover new books, by placing them all on a vast virtual table and letting your tastes and interests guide you as you filter through over 200 titles. Romance alongside poetry alongside science fiction alongside “literary” fiction alongside biography alongside comics.
Because a good book is a good book.
I contributed reviews, mostly of comics. Would have loved to have contributed more, always, but my book’s deadline is not as far away as I’d like to be. I’m happy that the new comics I’ve loved the most this year won’t be relegated to another “Best Comics” list, which many, many people in the NPR demo would blithely ignore.
If even one self-avowed non-comics person idly clicks on a review of Dash Shaw’s New School or Isabel Greenberg’s Encyclopedia of Early Earth because they’re among the books tagged as “Seriously Great Writing” (which they are) that’s one person who just might get blown away by a medium they’ve rejected. Because a good book …
Well. You know.
Here are the names of the people on the NPR Books and NewsApps teams who worked very, very hard on this. They are good eggs. The best of eggs.