Tuesday, October 30, 2012

They Saved Hitler's Brain

THE DEATH OF THE FUHRER is one of the greatest adventure novels ever written. It's probably the only book in which the hero fucks Adolf Hitler and later performs brain surgery on himself.

According to the original hardcover edition, which was published by St. Martins in 1972, author Roland Puccetti was born in Oak Park, Illinois--one-time home of Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ernest Hemingway--and "read philosophy at Illinois University." There is no such place as Illinois University. Perhaps the leaf meant the University of Illinois, from whose library I checked out this amazing work of fiction. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if everything about Puccetti, who also "went to live in Tahiti as a kind of intellectual vagabond" and translated the poems of Garcia Lorca while taking a doctorate in philosophy at the Sorbonne, is bullshit.

Whomever Puccetti is, he has one whale of an imagination. Our hero is Karl Gisevius, a physician who by chance hears the dying words of a Russian doctor who was part of the team that invaded Hitler's bunker at the end of World War II. The man claims Hitler's brain was missing. Gisevius miraculously believes the guy and convinces his editor (he's the science editor of a Paris newspaper) to send him to Berlin to check it out.

Gisevius miraculously (I could use that word a lot when describing events in THE DEATH OF THE FUHRER) enters the bunker by slithering down an old air vent and stumbles upon clues that not only back up the dead man's story, but indicate the surgery may have been performed by none other than Willi Tranger, an old school rival of Gisevius'--fencing rivals who gave each other facial scars during a particularly nasty match.

Tranger, a sadistic SS doctor during the war, is holed up with a bunch of former Nazis in an old Spanish castle. Gisevius miraculously (never mind) infiltrates the group by jumping his motorcycle over the stone wall and claiming his throttle was busted! Tranger believes him and introduces him to the group, including a gorgeous blonde Baroness who's the only woman living in the castle.

Let me just get straight to it. The Baroness eventually seduces Gisevius, and while they're wildly making love in her room, right at the point of orgasm, she screams, "Ich bin Der Fuhrer!" Realizing in a split second that Tranger has transplanted Hitler's brain into the Baroness, he pulls out of her and plunges a knife into her chest, killing her.

That's page 123 of a 223-page book. The plot gets even stranger, if you can believe it. Tranger eventually captures Gisevius and implants a metal box in his brain that the evil doctor can control remotely. He can make him happy or sad in an instant, hungry, even horny enough to screw a couch!

Gisevius escapes the trap and makes his way to the doctor's office, WHERE HE CUTS OPEN HIS SKULL, TAKES THE BOX OUT, DECAPITATES A GUARD WITH A SURGICAL SAW WHILE THE TOP OF HIS BRAIN IS EXPOSED ("If I so much as leaned forward, the cerebrospinal fluid encasing my brain would spill out; I could imagine the sticky liquid dripping over into my face and blinding me), AND SEWS HIS HEAD BACK TOGETHER AGAIN.

Needless to say, Hitler's brain is still friggin' alive, there's a castle deathtrap, a climactic fencing duel, characters carrying around the brain like a football, a massive Bondian exploding compound, and a but-did-it-really-happen ending. Holy shit.

There are no words to explain the wonderfulness of THE DEATH OF THE FUHRER.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

I really enjoyed Sean Howe's dense and candid history of Marvel Comics, which was just released earlier this month by HarperCollins. Billing itself on the inside cover as "an unvarnished, unauthorized behind-the-scenes account" of The House That Stan and Jack Built, MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY benefits from Howe's tenacious research and his zeal for truth, even if it sometimes shows Marvel and its employees in a negative light.

Now, those of you with a heavy interest in comic book history--those who eagerly anticipate each issue of Roy Thomas' breezy blast-from-the-past publication ALTER EGO and lament TwoMorrows' late, great magazine COMIC BOOK ARTIST (for my money, the best and best-researched magazine about comic books there ever was)--may find THE UNTOLD STORY occasionally redundant. Yet Howe spins the tale in such detail and such a fair-minded voice that I didn't mind hearing the stories again.

Marvel, of course, was not always Marvel. It was originally Timely Comics when pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman started the company in 1939. In 1941, he hired his wife's teenage cousin, Stanley Martin Lieber, to edit the comic books. Lieber, who anticipated a career writing important novels, credited his comic book work under the name "Stan Lee."

Howe covers the early Timely/Atlas years well enough, but the book really picks up steam when Marvel did: 1961, the year FANTASTIC FOUR #1 was published. The company--and the comic book industry--would never be the same.

While Lee, the vivacious public face of the company, created an ebullient public image for himself and Marvel, coining corny phrases like "Face front!" and "Excelsior!" and leaving readers with the idea that Marvel's army of writers, artists, and production staff hung out together all day in the amusement park of a Bullpen, the company was also home to fragile egos, including those of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and particularly The King, superstar artist Jack Kirby, who teamed with writer/editor Lee to create nearly every important superhero Marvel had in its stable, but never received what he thought to be proper credit for his work.

After Lee was kicked upstairs to an upper-management position in the early 1970s (and later sent to California, where he tried for decades to interest Hollywood in adapting Marvel properties for the large and small screens), twentysomething Roy Thomas was named Editor, ushering in a New Wave of long-haired, dope-smoking, free-wheeling artists and writers that stretched the boundaries of what kinds of stories could be told in four-color stories. As Marvel's readers aged up towards college level, the company's creators aged down from middle-aged men like Lee and artist John Romita to far-out youngsters like Steve Englehart (who wrote a Captain America story in which a barely disguised Richard Nixon committed suicide in the White House) and Steve Gerber, whose unique Howard the Duck led the way to creators suing Marvel for ownership of their creations.

Howe's story bogs down in later chapters, as the narrative shifts from the comic books' creators and editors to the boardrooms, following Marvel's many subsequent sales to New World Pictures, Revlon CEO Ron Perelman, and Disney, to name a few corporate entities. I found these stories--important though they are to Marvel's history--to be less gripping than the more human aspects, such as the job-related stress that (may have) brought early deaths to some personnel, such as nice-guy editor Mark Gruenwald.

Howe seems to have interviewed just about everyone who was anyone at Marvel Comics with notable absences being the hermetic Ditko (who hasn't been photographed since the 1960s!) and the mercurial Shooter, who passed up the opportunity to counter the many, many stories about his inflexibility, his ego, and his penchant for pissing off everyone who worked under him. Howe's attention to detail and Marvel's own fascinating rags-to-riches growth from a fledgling division of a company that devoted most of its resources to publishing "men's sweat" magazines to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise mark MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY as a must-read for comic enthusiasts.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The City On The Edge Of Forever

Note: I apologize for the lack of posts lately. Life has gotten in the way over the last month, as well as Blogger's pesky new interface, which is much, much worse than the old way of writing, saving, and publishing blog posts. I hope to get back on the blogging horse on a regular basis soon.

Note 2: this post is one of a series of STAR TREK episode reviews originally written for the alt.tv.startrek.tos newsgroup. For more information, please read this post.

Episode 28 of 80
April 6, 1967
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Joseph Pevney

The winner of a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, this stunning hour is not only most likely the best episode of the original STAR TREK series, it may well be the best STAR TREK episode ever.

Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) goes temporarily mad and uses a mysterious time portal called the Guardian of Forever to transport himself to the slums of New York City during the Great Depression. As a result of some action he undertook in the past, McCoy changed history, and the only way to fix the universe is for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to use the Guardian of Forever to return a few days before McCoy and stop him.

To survive in the 1930s, Kirk and Spock (who wears a watchcap to conceal his pointed ears) take jobs at a mission run by social worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Kirk falls madly in love with Edith, which turns out to be one of science fiction’s most memorably doomed romances.

Ellison’s original script was radically rewritten by story editor Gene Coon, series creator Gene Roddenberry, and script polishers D.C. Fontana and Steven Carabatsos, as it was deemed too expensive to film and presented the Enterprise crew acting out of character. I like what they did with Ellison’s teleplay, and certainly the ending that was televised works much better than Ellison’s would have (you can read Harlan’s in his 1995 book THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER: THE ORIGINAL TELEPLAY THAT BECAME THE CLASSIC STAR TREK EPISODE).

His idea was for Kirk to contemplate letting Edith live by disregarding the facts that millions would die, the world would be dominated by fascism, and he, Spock, and McCoy would never get home. Kirk would have tried to rescue Edith from the speeding truck, only to have the logical Mr. Spock prevent it. While that would definitely have been dramatic, I think Roddenberry et al. was right in thinking that it would have tarnished our picture of the heroic Captain Kirk. While Kirk was by no means drawn in simple black-and-white, it would seem way out of character for him to act this way. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one.

Also, while Spock's comforting of Kirk on board the Enterprise sounds like it would have been a great scene, it's hard to beat the power of the televised coda: Kirk staring off in grief and saying simply, "Let's get the hell out of here." That says as much as anything Spock could have said in Ellison's original.

Was this really the first time the word "hell" was used in this context in a dramatic network TV series?

This episode doesn't seem to have had an effect on Joan Collins. When she mentioned this guest shot in her autobiography, she got many basic facts of the episode wrong, including the name of her character!

Did Kirk and Keeler sleep together? I think it's implied they did. After walking to her home, there are a couple of dissolves, then Kirk comes in to his room where Spock is working on his machinery. Jim seems in an awfully darn good mood, doesn't he?

Director Joseph Pevney and the crew seem to have known they had a terrific story here. The sets, cinematography, even the special effects planet shots seem to have been assembled with special care. It was worth it. And the finale is one of the most wrenching in TV history. Shatner's performance in portraying Kirk's grief proves he has often been unfairly maligned as an actor.