Saturday, October 18, 2008


I teach you the superman. Man is something to be surpassed.
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

On my last trip to the National Library, I borrowed two hardcover books. The first was a re-work of the Shazam! origin by Jeff Smith (the genius behind Bone), playfully titled "The Monster Society of Evil". The second was a re-printing of the first issues of Shazam! (DC Archive Editions Shazam! Archives Volume 1).

Captain Marvel first appeared in Facwett's Whiz Comics, published in February 1940, two years after the alien named Clark Kent and one year after the insane earthman named Bruce Wayne made their respective debuts. Interestingly, on the cover of Captain Marvel's first appearance, Cap is drawn hurling a villan's car into a brick wall. On the cover of Action Comics #1, Superman is shown lifting a car (almost the same model as the Captain Marvel car), and ramming it's front into an earth mound.

Another observation - both titles start with letters at the opposite end of the alphabet.

I have nothing but praise for Jeff Smith's retelling. His characterizations and art are wonderful. Excellent pacing, little touches that feel right for a story about two young people facing a powerful menace from the other side of the Rock of Eternity. Smith is true to the mood and humour of the original. Sivana is still evil, but seems more like the Luthor from John Byrne's rework of Superman. A suit with a brilliant mind, in a respectable position in society but with a heart of blackness. No matter - it was the giant monsters that Mr Mind brought to Earth that were the grand pleasure. They stood still most of the time, making them look all the more menacing, and perhaps something like out of Paul Chadwick's Concrete.

Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family were the backdrop from which Alan Moore created MarvelMan, which began life in serialized form in the British Warrior comic. I first came across this comic at the small shop at the MacRitchie bus-stop in the early 1980s, while on my way home from the Nanyang Campus. At that time, V for Vandetta was being serialised and I remember being haunted by David Lloyd's art on the series.

Alan Moore took the corny innocence of the British Marvel Family (led by Marvelman who was a shameless copy of America's Captain Marvel) and turned it into something dark, sinister and absolutely brilliant. Doctor Gargunza looked very much like Doctor Sivana, and the earlier childish Marvel Family stories were explained as dreams plucked from comic books that Gargunza fed into the minds of his test subjects to keep them in a controlled state while their bodies, fashioned from Alien Technology were being probed and manipulated.

The series ended prematurely when Warrior folded. Eclipse Comics reprinted the old stories, and published the new stories in the US, and I lapped up each issue as it appeared. To keep Marvel's lawyers at bay, Marvelman was renamed Miracleman - a perfectly acceptable change if it meant we continued to get more of this fantastic series.

Alan Moore ended his run with the defeat of the grown Kid Miracleman, Johnny Bates in what must have been one of the most violent and gory mainstream comics ever. After "saving" the world, Miracleman sets himself up as leader of a world governed as a Dictatorship, by a Dictator benign, but who had lost all traces of his humanity. Neil Gaiman took over, and did what he did best on his Sandman run - writing short, seemingly unconnected stories that help build up a mythology, that strengthen an overall storyline racing to some tragic conclusion.

We never get to see that conclusion. Eclipse Comics unfortunately went bust, and thanks to a whole lot of competing legal claims to the rights to use the characters, we probably never will get to see the ending Gaiman intended.

Contrast the world of superheroes in the late 1930s when they first emerged, with the world that emerges post Johnny Bates in Miracleman. The 1930s comics were stories of hope and heroism, bright colored costumes and clear distinctions between good and evil, at a time when the world was sinking into darkness, when evil was penetrating the hearts of Europe and Asia. In the world of Miracleman, the superhuman class rule over mankind in a world of technological sophistication and granduer, where there is order and no wars exist, but where all seems dark and controlled and lacking in heart and spirit. Man is indeed surpassed by the superman, but it is not good.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mamma Mia!

"........Here we go again. How can I resist you?"

We just saw Mamma Mia the movie tonight. What a treat!
It was a little hard to watch at first, what with the oddness of the singing and dancing at what seemed like random or contrived moments.
But after the first few songs, the story started to draw me in, and the songs began to get my toes a-tapping, and I was hooked.

Meryl Streep sings very, very well. Pierce Brosnan may have been a great Bond, but thank goodness he never made a career out of singing.
It's high praise that I find myself wanting to buy the soundtrack, to enjoy the songs the way the actresses and actors in the film sang them. Very high praise because I so love the original Abba versions.
At the end of the film, I'm pretty sure I caught a glimpse of a bearded Bjorn Ulvaeus among the group of greeks dressed like they were on Olympus. On wikipedia, there's a note that Benny Andersson has a cameo as an old fisherman playing a piano during the Dancing Queen sequence.

This wonderful film left me with warm and mellow feelings, and tunes that played over and over in my head, not wanting to leave.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Battle of the Titans

From time to time, to the delight of fans, and to boost sales a little, comic publishers would contrive a cross-over - a story in which two powerful comic characters who normally would not ever meet, clash in an epic 4 part story.

Think Superman vs Hulk. Teen Titans vs X-Men. Batman vs Judge Dredd. Tarzan vs Predator.
You get the idea.

As part of my early education, my parents fed me a pretty steady diet of wildlife documentaries, mental food that I positively devoured. Sometimes, these would be films we'd go to a cinema to view, and there'd often be a short cartoon before it to make us kids happy. Later, there would be excellent documentaries shown in color on the national TV network - usually on hot and lazy Sunday afternoons. (I'm remembering in particular Carl Sagan's Cosmos and the David Attenborough BBC multi part documentaries)

I remember with particular fascination scenes of leopards chasing down the young deer, raising massive clouds of dust at breakneck speed. A vicious showdown between a cobra and a mongoose. Crocs in a muddy river dragging down the struggling elderly wilderbeast.

There were the fights I wish some documentary maker could have captured on film. A giant ape fighting a 30ft anaconda. A fight to the death between a giant squid and a sperm whale. That would have been so cool.

Now, real life has provided a fascinating match-up - and this was reported recently on the BBC in an article titled in a way that I simply could not resist:

Snake bursts after gobbling gator

What a great story! The two giants - a 13 foot burmese python, and a 6 foot croc fighting and killing each other in the Florida Everglades. Here's the link to the article.

Now if only there could have been a wildlife cameraman there to capture the action on film.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Shocking price increase from Singapore Power

The latest in a string of price increases from Singapore companies reporting good profits and growth is a 21% hike in electricity tariffs by Singapore Power.

Here is a letter I wrote to the Straits Times Forum on 4 Oct 2008:

Dear Editor,

Reading your newspaper this morning (ST 4 Oct 08) got me all charged up, thanks to one particularly shocking article titled "Queries on your power bill answered". SP conveniently justifies it's tariff increase by pointing at the 3-month forward fuel oil price, which is odd because 80% of it's electricity generated comes from Natural Gas, and also because everyone expects fuel prices to fall in the near term, as more countries follow NZ, Ireland and France into recession.

Singapore Power's Profit in FY07/08 was $1.085 billion (ref SP website). Very respectable results by any standard, more so against the backdrop of 2008's spiking crude prices and inflation. So why the hefty tariff increase? It seems that SP simply wants more profit, at the risk of adding to the difficulties it's customers already face. Easily found on SP's website is their mission statement: "We provide reliable and efficient energy utility services to enhance the economy and the quality of life". We certainly don't begrudge SP a reasonable profit for the services they provide, but the mission statement is a clear reminder that the well being of Singapore's economy and it's people matter more than profits beyond what is reasonable.

Your article mentions that the Singapore Government "has a poilcy of subjecting essentials like electricity, water and oil to market forces..." We've heard the same argument regarding the prices of HDB flats - where the price is not tied to the actual cost of materials and cost of land acquisition, but to the market value of flats in that area, and the market value of the land the flats are built on.

There is wisdom in not providing or minimizing subsidies, but one must question the assumption that allowing the free play of market forces and business' drive for profit at all costs is the best way to deliver well being for the ordinary citizen. The reputation of the free market religion has taken a serious trashing with the financial turmoil in the US housing market and Wall Street. These markets succumbed to human greed and an emphasis on short term profits at the expense of the long term health of the world economy, and are now dragging the global economy down with them.

A quick survey of the big news of the last few weeks gives us shocking examples of how an overemphasis on the profit motive has harmed those our society should most protect. Young children killed by tainted infant formula. Elderly retirees losing their retirement savings from investments marketed to them as safe.

The US Presidential and Vice Presidential debates have their candidates proclaiming their support for the middle class, and their belated discovery at how badly squeezed main street has become. Election talk, yes. But reflective of the mood of the American public. More market regulation all over the world is a near term certainty, and one hopes that companies will modify executive compensation to reward actions that generate long term benefit and moral leadership, instead of short term profit at any cost.

Perhaps its time for Singapore companies, particularly those that provide essential services and staples to the Singapore public, to move from a quest for profit leadership to moral leadership, and elevate the well being of their customers to the highest priority. Now that would be really electrifying news.