Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Smell of Old Yellow Paper

Earlier this month, I donated my entire comic book collection to charity. It's a 33-year old collection that dates back to one of my first books, Uncanny X-Men #171, the issue when Rogue first joins the team.  For 60 cents, I was hooked, and the cover still gives me a thrill: Rogue running from the rest of The X-Men with the tag line stamped, "Welcome to The X-Men, Rogue...Hope you Survive the Experience!"  Eventually I went on to collect other titles in the Marvel and DC canon like The New Teen Titans, SpiderMan, Alpha Flight, Justice League and many more.

Uncanny X-Men #171
During inventory, I noticed most of the titles dated back as early as 1983 to 1986/ '87, after which everything stops cold. Even my collection's chronology tells an unlikely story about me; because that was around the time my father, in one of his black rages, ordered that I never collect comics again. I still remember how he sealed the demand with a crack across my face. Not to veer too far off topic, I'll just say that I wish I can tell you my father was an evil man. It would be easier to hate him and put him in a neat little box with a label on it.  But the fact is, like all of us, my father had his demons. It's not excusing some of the lousy things he did, but it's a hard-won sense of peace when you realize and learn your parents are only human too.  But that's for another time.

Eventually, I went off to Binghamton and living away granted me the autonomy to pick up where I left off, which explains why my collection grew again with titles dating back from 1990 to 1993. It trailed off again when I graduated college. I was coming out of the closet, coming to terms with my identity, all while trying to figure out the complications of dating, a rite of passage for which the teenage years are usually reserved. On top of this, the pressure to find steady work became one of my foremost priorities. Still, I always returned to take a peek and see what was going on, buying an issue here and there to read what my favorite heroes were doing.

Over time, I carefully bagged my collection away in the basement, gathering dust, waiting to get forgotten. So maybe I was ready to let go. And then I knew I was ready to let go when I re-read the story line from one of my first and favorite series, Batman and The Outsiders #1. I found it unreadable. It seemed flat and unrealistic. I didn't have the fantasy and suspension of disbelief filter as I once had, and worst of all, the sour realization flashed before me that comic books were nothing but socially acceptable soap operas for boys.

Batman and The Outsiders #1

But even if there was no rush of childhood nostalgia, that doesn't mean I still can't honor what comic books meant to me. Comic books made me fall in love with the written word. My vocabulary increased exponentially. So what if I never get the occasion to use words like polyglot, higgledy-piggledy or quidnunc in a sentence? At least once a year, I still manage to work words like kerfuffle and scuttlebutt in a conversation. But more importantly, for a kid who held his secrets hard in his heart, I loved the fantasy and escape they provided.

While I was rummaging through my collection, getting it ready for donation, what really got me was the particular damp and musty smell of old yellowing paper, the thin, cheap kind on which most comics were printed before the 1990s. The scent shot me back to an image of that hideous blood-red velvet sofa my parents must have bought out of a pimp's truck.  I remember storing my cherished copy of Alpha Flight #1 underneath the cushions, hoping it would remain flat and safe.

Alpha Flight #1 John Byrne

And I also  remember begging my mom for 60 cents so I could buy the latest copy of Amazing Spiderman #252, the issue that debuted his new black costume.

Amazing Spiderman #252
Sometimes I don't know if I'll ever feel like a kid again, but looking at these old covers gives me some hope. Though most of my books are gone now, I kept a few back to remind me of that hopeful possibility.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Travelogue 6 - Bora Bora!

Bora Bora  •  January 15-23, 2015
One of the beach resorts whose name escapes me now.
Main island in the background
When I told friends and family that I was going to Bora Bora for my next trip, I have to admit I drew some pleasure in the announcement. I heard the response so often that I was able to mentally mouth the words, "You're going to Bora Bora!? I hate you, that's on my bucket list".

It was an expensive trip, but not nearly as expensive as some would think. The huts floating over those powder blue waters are Bora Bora's visual calling card. Mostly located on the motus (islets) that surround the main island proper, the huts snake into the waters like bacteria sprouting in a petri dish (it's an awful simile, but if you ever see an aerial view, that's exactly what it looks like). Instead of lounging for a week in one of these hovering fantasies, my friends and I decided to rent one just for an afternoon.
Huts over the clear waters of Bora Bora - Le Meridien Resort

Still, it was generally agreed that the choice to rent a modest condo on the main island proved more rewarding. Saving a ton of money was the residual benefit for having the actual privilege to live among the locals. Bundled in the apartment rental agreement was a beat-up Hyundai with balding tires. We drove along the perimeter of the entire island on a single, pock-marked road, and experienced a lived-in Bora Bora that we would have otherwise been denied.

Without sugar coating or alternately sounding too harsh, the people of Bora Bora are poor and the living conditions reflect this status. While it shouldn't suggest visions of third-world hovels or crime-ridden tropical ghettos, it's still a dramatic contrast to the sprawling and luxurious resorts built for the vacationing jet-set. It's a very simple and somewhat stripped way of living. I also never met a friendlier people; a small, generally content populace that welcomes visitors, travelers, vagabonds and honeymooners alike. Io Orana is the Tahitian salutation and I must have been warmly greeted with this phrase dozens of times a day.

Jack Aiello Photography
Woman selling tropical fruits and vegetables on the side of the road © Jack Aiello Photography
With no cemeteries, the locals honor their dead with mausoleums stationed in the front yard or at the side of the house. As we drove along, it was Mike who first noticed the curious structures that resembled mini-houses.

Rows of silvery tuna freshly plucked from the waters hung in rows like shimmering scale armor on the side of the road. It was on sale for passersby to inspect.

At dusk, it was common to find people gathering on the shores with jerry-built barbecues, the comforting smell of burning wood complementing the sight of a fiery sunset.

Bora Bora's answer to Shop Rite and CVS was Chin Lee Supermarket. I'm so accustomed to supermarkets being sterile aisle after aisle of product arranged in Warholian allure, that I didn't know what to make of Chin Lee's scattershot and grey arrangement. Weirdly now, I miss the sticks of freshly baked baguettes stationed at the entrance.

Chin Lee Supermarket, Bora Bora

So what else did we do?

Swim with the sharks?
Check.

Swim with the manta rays?
Check.

Swim the turtles?
Check.

Was I awestruck by the coral reefs?
Taken with my iPhone camera and waterproof case.©Jack Aiello Photography www.jackaiello.com
...you get the picture.

For me, travel destinations always beg a second visit. It's just the way my mind works. I process experiences more slowly, my impressions always maturing and becoming more fully realized after the fact. It's not a good thing for my wallet, for sure. The real Bora Bora didn't didn't veer too far from those glossy brochure photos. The turquoise lagoon shimmered with so many shades of blue and green it broke my heart. And living on the main island, we were afforded a view behind the curtain, and I have to say it was a privilege to experience how the island locals really live.

Will I go back? I can't say. Do I want to go back? With all my heart.

Main Port at Bora Bora
Mike and Rachel, my partners in crime, enjoying drinks at Bloody Mary's
jackaiello.com
Boy diving off main pier, Bora Bora, ©Jack Aiello Photography






Sunday, February 22, 2015

Get Your Ass to Portland

I've never been to Portland.  And I never met Steve McCall.

Never.

Over the years, Steve and I became cyber friends, first through Epinions and then through Facebook. I grew to respect him as a writer primarily because of an article he wrote about Sedona. It was a piece that was so unpretentious and beautifully written, that it inspired me actually to visit this place. Years later, I'm seriously considering Sedona as the place to retire.

Between now and then, I still have miles to go and Steve recently managed to write a traveler's guide to his home city, Portland. I really hate him because my traveling budget can stretch only so far.
Copyright Steve McCall, photography by Astragal
No surprise it's a quick, great read and it proves what I've long suspected about Portland - that it deserves a visit.  My poor wallet.

Steve's book is available through Amazon here.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Movies Adapted from the Comics

I was rummaging through some articles I wrote for Epinions and I came across this jewel that I published three years ago. I'm pretty proud of this list. With the exception of possibly adding "X-Men, Days of Future Past" and "Man of Steel", I still stand by this list of my favorite comic book movies.

************************************************************

This is a countdown of my top 10 comic book action movies.  While movies adapted from a comic book don't have to remain 100% faithful to their source material, they should still embody a generous portion of the spirit from which the series is based.  In addition, excellent action and adventure, and realistic human drama would be the next crucial criteria behind all the choices listed herein.  The title says it all, so I'll list some honorable mentions and we'll start the countdown.

Honorable Mentions:
Superman (1978), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Watchmen (2009), Amazing Spider Man (2012)


10. Superman II (1981)
"Kneel before Zod", Terence Stamp proclaims.  And in the summer of 1981, we all knelt before Superman II.  Presaging the special effects boom of the 1990s, Superman II can look dated at first blush, but there are other reasons for which this movie makes the #10 spot.  The first Superman (1978) brought the comic book hero to real life, but Superman II took it to the next level.  Dated special effects aside, the stunt sequences are still solid and loads of fun (the wonders one can do with just a sewer lid).  The opening Eiffel Tower scene is a swashbuckling hoot as Lois Lane's impetuous nature (a feisty Margot Kidder) will always put her in need of a Superman.  Not one, but three black patent leather-suited villains?  That was worth the price of admission alone.  Add the late, great Christopher Reeve who embodied the noble spirit of this flagship DC character, and Superman II had all the right ingredients for a summer blockbuster.  Just add the popcorn.


9. Superman Returns (2006)
Woefully underrated, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns deserves a second look.  Not only is it beautifully shot with a reverent eye toward Richard Donner's 1978 adaptation of the Superman movie, but its brisk storytelling nimbly alternates between love story and action movie, with neither hitting a false or hurried note.  Newcomer Brandon Routh ably fits the role of Clark Kent/Superman, whereas Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane seems to be the only slight misstep in casting.  Lex Luthor's villainy lies in his vicious intellect and Kevin Spacey conveys this with his trademark dramatic pauses.  Even the tinges of humor - more leftover from Gene Hackman's portrayal than anything from the comic book - doesn't detract from Luthor's deadly menace.  Well over a two-hour running time, Singer knows how to let a movie breathe while still making it taut and entertaining.  A double-take on this movie is most worth it.


8. Spiderman 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi crafted a serviceable, albeit thankless, directing job in outlining Spiderman's origins in Spiderman 1 (2002), and I think no one would disagree that the Green Goblin posed a problematic interpretation to the big screen.  Whereas Spiderman 1 was merely adequate, Spiderman 3 was just too unfocused and scattershot.

Spiderman 2, however, was a pitch perfect superhero action flick.  The comic book series as envisioned by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, struck a light yet dramatic tone between Peter Parker's everyday teen problems and the burden of his newfound powers.  Spiderman 2 balances this high wire act brilliantly.  Whether Peter is struggling with his fading powers, dealing with the on again/off again relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), or a strained friendship that's about to boil over with Harry Osborn (James Franco), the movie's center of gravity comes from Peter Parker's constant grappling with the moral sense of duty his Uncle Ben inculcated in him: "with great power comes great responsibility".   As far as villains go, Doctor Octopus could have been just another one-dimensional psychopath wreaking havoc and robbing banks.  Extra kudos go to Alfred Molina for humanizing this villain.


7. X-Men First Class (2011)
X-Men First Class explores the origins of how Charles Xavier’s team of mutants came into existence.  It can be very tricky to tell a story whose outcome we already know.  Done with no respect for continuity or lack of logic, and the audience can easily walk away feeling cheated and bored.  Luckily, Matthew Vaughn retrofits this prequel with excellent actors tweaking their respective characters with youthful cheekiness and morally ambiguous motivations.

Before they were known as Professor X and Magneto, we get a glimpse into Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) friendship with Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and how events unfurled to turn these men into archenemies.

Set in the 1960’s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis as backdrop, Charles and Erik help the American government recruit other mutants to stop the imminent threat of nuclear war precipitated by Sebastian Shaw (a casually cruel Kevin Bacon).  First Class combines wonderful action sequences with a fantastic plot and a mix of new and old characters from the X-Men universe.


6. Batman Begins (2005)
After a lamentable raping at the hands of Joel Schumacher, director Christopher Nolan gives the Batman franchise the proper reboot it deserved, creating "Batman Begins", a somber and decidedly more serious comic book movie.  With second class villains like Ra's Al Ghul and Scarecrow, not to mention a more believable retelling of the Batman's origins, one would think Batman Begins is a plodding and leaden affair, but nothing could be further from the truth.

With few special effects, Batman is one of the rare comic book heroes with no super powers, and as such, everything about the character is related on a human scale and within a realistic framework.  Rather than an aerodynamically phallic space age automobile, the Batmobile is a veritable tank, clunky almost in its bulky frame.  Even Bruce Wayne's alter ego goes through growing pains before he perfects his crime fighting persona.  A cape interspersed with negative charges explains his ability to glide through the air.  And as Batman wages a nightly battle with Gotham City's criminals, it's Bruce Wayne that wakes up the next morning visibly bruised and beaten.

Tenebrous, moody, and relentlessly brooding, "Batman Begins" flawlessly distills the essence of a dark, psychologically complex superhero without compromising a scintilla of great storytelling or heart stopping action.


5. Iron Man (2008)
After a heart damaged by shrapnel from a terrorist ambush, Tony Stark literally has to schlep a car battery under his arm to keep his heart from giving out.  Confident and cocksure just like its character, Iron Man is one of those movies that far exceeded my expectations.

A-list actors marvelously cast in each role (Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges).

A knock out script with boldly drawn characters.

Suspense.

Great special effects in service of the plot rather than the other way around.

Action and drama tempered with bits of genuine, zippy humor.

And in the middle of it all, a boozing, womanizing multi-millionaire with a brazen attitude must save his own life from terrorist captives.  From this defining event, Tony Stark transforms himself into Iron Man, an all too frail human encased in a high tech, impenetrable shell of armor.  Don't let it fool you - Iron Man is all heart.


4. X-Men 2: X-Men United (2003)
Though I was never able to articulate it as a child, I enjoyed the X-Men comic books on so many different levels.  It wasn't just the idea of super powered mutants who protected a society that hated and feared them, but it was the obvious parallel it drew to the prejudice and bigotry real people experience for being regarded as different and therefore socially unacceptable.  In X-Men 2, director Bryan Singer skillfully and subtly weaves this subtext throughout the entire movie.

On the surface, X2, just as in the pages of the comic, is about a group of super beings shunned by normal society for the extraordinary abilities they possess.  Government operatives are hostile towards this new, powerful race, who many think are poised to occupy and dominate the next rung on the human evolutionary ladder.

As well on the surface, it's jam packed with great action and character cameos that would make a fanboy pump his fists.  The opening sequence with Nightcrawler's balletic attack on the White House is just an amuse bouche for what's to follow.  Along the way, there's a handy subplot involving Wolverine's origins, there's the introduction of Jean Grey's Phoenix persona, Cerebro, and Lady Deathstrike.

At more than two hours, X2 never feels like it bites off more than it can chew precisely because its quieter moments reveal a genuine poignancy.  "Couldn't you just stop being... a mutant?", Bobby Drake's mother asks.  Substitute "mutant" for "gay", or any word to define weird or "other", and X-Men 2 taps closer to the human marrow than any comic book movie should.


3. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Pay attention to Batman Begins (2005) and you’ll see how The Dark Knight Rises becomes the perfect capstone to Christopher Nolan’s masterfully dark vision of DC’s iconic Batman character.

Whether viewed as part of the trilogy or on its own merits, Rises makes the grade.  And though probably a tad less brilliant than its second chapter, Nolan still manages some revelatory surprises, with the stakes never higher.  Rises features a brutal, methodical villain in Bane (Thomas Hardy) and a slinky Ann Hathaway as a morally ambiguous cat burglar.  Coming out of an 8-year retirement, Batman must rescue Gotham City from certain nuclear annihilation.

While some fans have argued that Rises is a parable for the Occupy Wall Street movement and a bubbling resentment over the uneven distribution of wealth among today’s classes, Nolan maintains that he derived his inspiration from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”.  Whatever the case, The Dark Knight Rises is suffused with a trenchant and murky introspection that’s as deep as the pit Bruce Wayne tries to crawl out from.


2. The Dark Knight (2008)
The praise heaped on Christopher Nolan's follow up to Batman Begins deserved every bit of critical acclaim that came its way.  The Dark Knight is as much a feast for the eyes as it is the brain, and it doesn't rest solely on Heath Ledger's volcanic and unsettling performance as the Joker - a sociopathic prankster who masterminds deadly social experiments just for funsies.  It's the richly drawn characters with competing - and not always clear - motivations.  It's the twisting plot narrative that pits a deadly game of one-upsmanship between The Caped Crusader and his deranged adversary.  And it's Nolan's dark and claustrophobic visual style that keeps with the sense of doom that seems to lurk behind every corner.

District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) looks to be the only bright spot in a city brimming with corruption and moral rot.  Batman (a stoic Christian Bale) is viewed as just another vigilante and the rise of the Joker plunges Gotham's inhabitants into a state of perpetual fear and panic.  The battle for Gotham's soul doesn't come in the final showdown as the Joker suggests, but in the complete vitiation of its one true rising star.  The Joker is captured, but not defeated, and there's no tidy ending for this intense and dark thrill ride.


1. The Avengers (2012)
Forget its mega blockbuster status (The Avengers raked in $620M domestically!).  Forget even the technicolor action, fluid dialogue and the genuine LOL moments.

That a movie could be made with this kind of scope is not a stretch with today’s sophisticated digital effects.  So let’s leave that out too.  The real challenge with an ensemble cast of outsize comic book characters is how can it be translated to the big screen without looking like a campy mess?

Director Joss Whedon’s witty, light touch is all over this, and he plays the story as a clash of huge egos coming together to contain a worldwide threat.  Watching the likes of Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow all come together in this successful superhero team movie made me feel like a kid again.

And truthfully, it gives me hope that Hollywood can do justice to a Justice League movie.  Now that would be bank!
 

--This article was originally published on Epinions, December 8, 2012

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving Thoughts



Thanksgiving is a time to gorge and be thankful, to come together and weather awkward family moments, making sure no one steps on any land mine topics. This year was no different. I love my family, but so what? The holidays should be used as occasions to reaffirm bonds, but I see less and less of that. People put up their guard, put on their best face, or just ignore each other. My niece and nephew, entrenched in their teenage phase, regard adults like me as passe or unapproachable. Ironically, my puerile response is to play on my iPhone.

Everything this year felt like a rushed chore to be done and over with as quickly as possible. I left stuffed and empty. I'm not saying that the holidays should be used as "come-to-Jesus" meetings. Can you imagine what that would be like? Mostly, I'm grateful that everyone's got their health and faculties so that I have the privilege to gripe in this manner.

The best I can hope for at this stage of my life, is to hope that everyone is doing the best they can; the best they can to be happy and healthy. The best person they can be.

The best I can hope for is to do the same for myself.

And there's always room for improvement.




Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Travelogue 4 - Isola di Ponza, Italy (June 23 - July 4)

On the early morning of June 23, a driver picked me up at my flat just off Piazza del Popolo and drove me to the port city of Anzio. From there, I took a hydrofoil to the island of Ponza.  Ponza is one of those best kept secrets: it floats aimlessly in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just south of Rome, north of Naples. Ponza doesn't quite have the name recognition of Capri or its Greek counterpart, Santorini, but that’s just fine with me. It retains its authenticity and its tourist trappings to a minimum.

Beach Italy Ponza
Spiaggia Chiaia di Luna - Copyright Jack Aiello Photography
www.jackaiello.photoshelter.com
My family comes from Ponza. My father still lives here. According to him, the summer months still saturate the island with Italian mainlanders, but it’s a nominal price to pay when such a small island is rich with natural beauty and a history that dates back to ancient Roman times. 

Ponza Lighthouse, Jack Aiello Photography
Aerial view of the Lighthouse -
I used Long Exposure techniques to render the blue waters like smooth frosted glass
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography - www.jackaiello.photoshelter.com
I’ve written about Ponza before.  I can blather on about its history, the people, the wonderful coastline dotted with grottos, cliffs, and the beaches whose surrounding sea waters migrate from jewel tones of green and turquoise to baby and sapphire blues.  However, in the pursuit of simplicity, I’m opting for some pics to tell you the rest of the story.

Ponza, Italy
Topography from Le Forna, the northern portion of the island rich with beautiful bays
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography - www.jackaiello.photoshelter.com

Ponza, Italy - Main Port
The main port
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography - www.jackaiello.photoshelter.com

Ponza, Italy - Main Port
Aerial View of the Main Port - Ponza, Italy
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography - www.jackaiello.photoshelter.com

Jack Aiello Nature Landscape Photography
Cala Gaetano - It takes at least 200 steps to get down there.
No sandy beach, just perch on the rocks, take in the sun, and dive in those waters to cool off.
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography - www.jackaiello.photoshelter.com

Pops and my nephew, John, enjoying an amazing seafood dinner.
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography - www.jackaiello.photoshelter.com