The Sunday Magazine: DC’s The Green Lantern

When it comes to superheroes in the comic books we are in an era where all their psychological underpinnings are put on display. That wasn’t the way it was when I started reading comics as a child in the 1960’s. The characters were stalwart do-gooders who were defined by that innate need to do the right thing. By the 1970’s the comic books began to “grow up” as the heroes faced more mature problems. This has continued to the present day.

When it came to the transition DC had the most trouble moving their characters. Think of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Only Bruce Wayne was a place where you could build some darker shades without seeming like you were breaking the character. DC found their way and over time have managed to create interesting emotional places for their stable of heroes. Which is why It is funny that I am reminded of those early days with the current run of The Green Lantern by Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp.

The Green Lantern has always been a character with an interesting mythology. A member of an intergalactic police agency. Instead of Men in Black it was Men in Green. Hal Jordan is the only human member of the Green Lantern Corps. What Mr. Morrison has chosen to do with this series of stories is to focus on The Green Lantern as that cop who has a section of the galaxy to patrol.

As is so often the case with these limited issue runs the author creates a multi-issue arc. Mr. Morrison is throwing that out; creating an episodic series. Each issue covers a single story wrapped up by the final page. Hal Jordan even comes off a bit stiff like the classic beat cops. The fun of this series is how Mr. Morrison comes up with these crazy off the wall plots to put the taciturn Green Lantern in the middle of. If Green Lantern is by the book the book is warped as heck. There are so many crazy twists it could also have been subtitled “Law and Order: Intergalactic Unit”.

I’m not sure but it seems like Mr. Morrison is having a ton of fun being unconstrained by an overarching plot to just let fly with single issue mayhem. Beyond that Mr. Sharp’s visuals have a throwback quality too. They are reminiscent of the art seen in Heavy Metal or on a Frazetta poster. It is wonderful accompaniment to Mr. Morrison’s words.

If you are in the mood for some old-fashioned superheroics I highly recommend this newest iteration of The Green Lantern.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Farewell to iTunes

I remember when the iPod was announced in 2001. A digital music player which held hundreds of songs which fit in a shirt pocket. The dream of being able to carry every bit of music I owned with me had begun to come true. I was not an Apple computer person so I couldn’t join in until the second edition of iPod was released which was compatible with Windows. Right away I found about the big draw back to being a Windows user of an iPod. The horribly clunky music management program called “MusicMatch”. I watched my Apple compatible friends using this thing called “iTunes” which was so much easier. So much easier I almost became an Apple computer person. Thankfully after about a year there was an iTunes for Windows. Ever since that day all the music I have ever owned has been in an iTunes library. Which made the news of last week that Apple was phasing out iTunes unexpectedly sad to me. It wasn’t that my music still wouldn’t have a home. It made me think what an impact iTunes had on music in such a short time.

As iTunes was released there was a lot of music pirating going on using new file sharing services. The record companies had no idea how to fight the internet buccaneers allowing for their content to be downloaded for free. You didn’t have to pay for a compact disc anymore you just joined a file sharing site and downloaded it for free. The hitch was you had to burn your own copy on a blank CD. The iPod was about to change that. Now those files could just go right into the player. There was a legitimate worry nobody would buy music again.

Then Steve Jobs took advantage of this climate and opened the “iTunes store” as an adjunct to the main program. He would convince the record companies that if it was sold for a reasonable price people would legally choose to download music. Then Mr. Jobs used the timing to make a bold move. All songs, every single song, would cost 99 cents. No exceptions. Unsurprisingly many, but not all, signed on the dotted line. This would be the move which would beat the free file sharing services because 99 cents were exactly the right price. Even for me. I chose to buy new music on iTunes often because that worked for me.

iTunes has been my own personal top 40 countdown as I am able to look back and see what my most played songs are ever. I can see my own trendlines when I search by dates. None of this is going away it will just be called Apple Music from now on and the video and podcasts now have their own home. All things change but I will miss my giant iTunes library and the history it represents.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Beginning of Peak Television

It is easy to take for granted that the phrase, “there’s nothing to watch” no longer applies to television. We live in an era of what is called “peak television” where audacious original visions have platforms on which to display themselves. Exactly twenty years ago that was not the case. The premiere of “The Sopranos” in January of 1999 on HBO is when this new era of television began.

In 1999 HBO was the only cable network relying on original programming. The executives were willing to try things because as a subscription service they had more latitude. When they listened to the story creator-writer David Chase wanted to tell with “The Sopranos” they hardly knew what it would mean to the future of storytelling on television. They would turn upside down what people thought of when thinking about television drama.

I spent some time since the beginning of the year watching the first season again. I just finished a couple weeks ago. From a story perspective it was fun because I knew where they all ended up. There was a lot of foreshadowing in that first season. I’m not sure if Mr. Chase had that much faith or it was a giant wager to make sure HBO wanted more. There are a couple of things which really stood out to me which have become cornerstones of much of the current peak television.

The most obvious is that of the flawed hero, or anti-hero. Tony Soprano, as played by James Gandolfini, was a brutal mob boss with feet of clay. Tormented by panic attacks that would get him killed if his Mafia brethren found out about it. As an audience we are sympathetic to that plight. Mr. Chase draws us in to becoming complicit with Tony as he manages his crime family with that secret hanging over him. It is the artful ability to make an audience root for a monster. That all comes home in episode 5, “College”. Tony takes his daughter Meadow on a college visit to Maine. On the trip he discusses the family business with her in a way which feels like a father bonding with a child. When they get to the college, he drops Meadow off and returns to a gas station where they filled up. He recognized a snitch who was in witness protection at the station. He returns to kill him. As Tony strangles him the camera stay focused only on his emotionless dead-eyed face as you hear his victim choking off screen. It was a brilliant reminder halfway through the season that no matter what you like about Tony he is a heartless killer.

This kind of arc has been played many times over the past twenty years with perhaps the best being Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White on “Breaking Bad”. There is no way that series gets made without The Sopranos.

The second thing I noticed was the death of main characters contained within brilliant plot twists. The second half of the first season raised the stakes as characters you thought were main characters were killed. The scheming coming from multiple unexpected directions. When I watched the final episode of season 1, twenty years later, I was still drawn to the edge of my seat even though I knew how it turned out.

That is really the best thing about “The Sopranos” is twenty years later it holds up. It doesn’t feel dated. It just feels like the place where Peak Television began.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Jimmy Buffett

I have come to acknowledge my music playlist mirrors my perfume rotation. There are songs, and fragrances, which are better in a specific season. The other thing music has in common with perfume is it can conjure up time and place. One musician who is a summertime staple and a reminder of my life in South Florida is Jimmy Buffett.

Jimmy Buffett has become known over the last thirty years as one of the great concert performers with group of adoring fans called “parrotheads”. It reflects an artist at ease with the style of music he makes who openly embraces his fans joining in the fun. I’ve never considered myself a “parrothead” because my fandom came about before all of that.

Jimmy Buffet in 1975

Mr. Buffett was a staple on South Florida FM radio and at dockside bars where even in the early 1970’s his songs could turn the party up a notch. The song I heard on the radio which caught my attention was “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” the reason it made an impression is the next two words, “and screw”. In 1973 these kind of parody songs had a place on the FM radio playlists. I would pick up the album it was on “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” to find a set of songs that spoke of living a casual life in the tropics.

Over the next few years each subsequent release would become part of any mix tape I made. On his next album “Living and Dying in ¾ Time” it is another comedy song “God’s Own Drunk” which has always been one of my go-to choices when I need a smile.

For a long time Mr. Buffett was a musician who felt like he was going to be a regional attraction. Then in 1977 with the release of the album “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” and the monster hit “Margaritaville” that thought was blown out of the water. Suddenly everyone was looking for their “lost shaker of salt” and wanting in on the party.

That party has gone on ever since. For me when I listen to his music from 1973- 1985 it reminds me of where I grew up. The people I spent time with. A casual summer lassitude where life is on hold. I can sit on my porch in Poodlesville put in the headphones and be in the Florida Keys. There is magic to that.

I may not identify as a “parrothead”, but I will be spending a lot of time this summer with Mr. Buffett at the top of my playlist.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Final Season of HBO’s Game of Thrones

The final episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” aired a week ago. Like all final episodes of beloved series its reception was mixed. That is to be expected. Characters you’ve spent the last eight years with you hope they get happy, or heroic, endings. If those characters don’t, you’re probably in the unhappy camp. If they did, you’re in the pleased camp. We had been warned by the author of the books the series this is based on, George R.R. Martin, that the ending would be bittersweet. Knowing that going into last week’s episode I wasn’t surprised that it lived up to that foreshadowing. I’ve enjoyed it more the more times I watch it. There are many full circle moments and callbacks to the past. I thought this final season was well done with enormous set pieces like nothing we’ve ever seen on television. There were twists and tension which glued me to the screen the past six Sunday nights. From here on I will talk about some of the key moments from the season so if you haven’t watched now is the time to stop reading.

This final season was split into two three-episode arcs. The first three episodes focused on the battle between the living and the White Walkers. My favorite episode of the season was the second one as we spent the night before battle with many of the characters interacting as they expected the next day would be their death. In a season which moved at speed this was the episode which slowed things down for us to have final lengthy moments with many of the characters we’ve spent so much time with. When the episode ends with the arrival of the White Walkers outside the walls of Winterfell so did the interlude.

That third episode which depicts the Battle of Winterfell is another amazing piece of filmmaking from this crew. It took 55 days of night shoots to put together the episode. Director Miguel Sapochnik made a battle of three distinct phases each growing more desperate. Until a final last gasp victory is achieved.

This leads to the final three episodes which focus on the battle for the Throne between the survivors and Cersei Lannister’s forces. It was the second episode of this group which also was my favorite. The two forces of nature which were Cersei and Daenerys come to a place where the entire episode is poised on a knife-edge until one of them lets her anger lead to a horrible decision. One of the brilliant pieces of this episode, again directed by Mr. Sapochnik, was the street level view of the collateral damage of the battle. For a third of the episode the audience is kept on the ground while above them dragons spew flame. It was the one episode this season that rattled my emotions the most. It leads to an ending I’ve already given my impressions on above.

In the week since the final episode was aired there have been a couple of arguments from people who were disappointed. The first was they opened a petition for “competent writers” to re-do the final season. One thing I remind anyone who mentions they didn’t like the ending; that the producers were told by Mr. Martin what the ending was. I believe every big moment we’ve seen since Season 5 has come straight out of the books. Mr. Martin will undoubtedly lay more foundation for the plot twists, but the same ones are coming for those who read the books. I keep asking if there will be a petition to ask for a “competent writer” to re-write the final book. As a viewer you have every right to be unhappy with the ending for not living up to what you wanted. What you don’t have is the “right” to ask artists to re-make the world in your vision. What we saw is Mr. Martin’s ending.

Which leads to the one disappointment I share somewhat; that the season was too fast and particularly the last two seasons seem too streamlined. There is a good reason for this. The first four and a half seasons they were working from over 4,000 pages of written books. The last two and a half were from a list of big bullet points supplied by Mr. Martin to the producers. I remind everyone in the books Jon Snow still lies stabbed on the floor of Castle Black. In the series he is resurrected, takes back Winterfell, romances the Queen, finds out he is the nephew of the Queen, fights the White Walkers, becomes a Queenslayer, and is exiled to the Night’s Watch. None of that has been depicted in the books yet that was what the producers had to work with. It left them with a dilemma, flesh things out or stay true to what is essentially a Wikipedia synopsis of the last two books from the author. I think their choice was the right one to keep it simple and connect the bullet points. Sometime in the future we will get the blanks filled in by the books.

At the end of it all I am happy with how it ended. I am also looking forward to the books to get that background which was missing. Which is maybe is exactly the way it was supposed to end.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Robert M. Parker Jr.

1

Two of my best friends shared a love of wine with me. When we were in college together, we learned through experiencing what we could. I would say that is when we began to develop out ability to distinguish the different varieties of wine.  Our shared knowledge would soar when we found ourselves living in the New York City area after graduation. I don’t remember which one of us found the book first but when we opened “Bordeaux: The Definitive Guide for the Wines Produced since 1961” by Robert M. Parker Jr. we were captured by the matter-of-fact talk about wine. Mr. Parker would become the most influential wine critic in the world because of it.

Robert M. Parker Jr.

Mr. Parker’s fascination with wine happened because of a girl he fancied. He followed her to Alsace France and besides finding his wife he also found French wine. When he returned to the US, he finished his law degree, but his inspiration was in a bottle of French wine. Over time he would realize the current wine publications were mainly shilling for the brands who advertised on their pages. He wanted to run a publication which survived only on subscriptions while producing unbiased wine reviews and commentary. “The Wine Advocate” was born in 1979. Mr. Parker would begin a career of visiting the wineries. In the early 1980’s he would correctly predict some of the great French Bordeaux vintages from barrel tastings. He would become especially known for being the first to laud the 1982 vintage using this method. Many others felt differently. My friends and I knew nothing of this. Our introduction was through his book.

“Bordeaux” was just what we needed as a reference text to refine our knowledge. Our experience had given us a foundation Mr. Parker would show us how to build our own chateau upon it. We could try the wines he wrote about and compare what we experienced with what he said he felt. We all came to love the style of wines from certain Chateaus he seemed less enthused about and vice versa. What we were gaining was our own personal critical perspective. It has provided a lifetime of pleasure for all three of us I believe.

Mr. Parker’s influence rose rapidly along with the subscribers to The Wine Advocate. He would become a champion of non-European wines. I know one of my favorite moments was tasting a Shiraz wine from Australia while thinking this is amazing for $6/bottle. Only to find in the next issue that Mr. Parker was writing about them, too. It is one of those times where I felt I had learned some of what he had to teach me. Whenever I try wines from a new region in the world I approach with an open mind because I have been rewarded most of the time.

There was a backlash to Mr. Parker by some who felt he had too large an influence on the wine-buying public with his ratings. That always felt like a false narrative to me. I followed his writing because he pointed me to wine I enjoyed. That was always the most important piece of Mr. Parker to me that wine was here to enjoy.

Which leads to my favorite story of my personal interaction with him. A local restaurant was having a wine tasting event with Mr. Parker in attendance. I couldn’t buy a ticket fast enough. It was a small affair and he spent time with each table taking questions and talking about what we were drinking. Someone who was less starstruck than I asked him if he ever visited any of his reader’s wine collections. He then told a story about being invited by a reader who he knew had an extensive collection to dinner. He was surprised when the hosts served younger wines. After the meal was done, he asked when they drank some of the wines in the cases around them. The host replied, “Never! We’re saving them!” Mr. Parker looked around our table and said to us “don’t do that, the joy of wine is in drinking it.” It is those words which have stuck with me.

This week Mr. Parker announced he was retiring from The Wine Advocate and from active reviewing. Because of his trailblazing The Wine Advocate has a staff that will continue the good work.

For me part of the way I write about perfume was directly affected by the way Mr. Parker approached wine. I try to approach every new fragrance with the same open mind he encouraged me to have about wine. I am always pleased when I find a new brand that I like because of it.

Tonight I’ll raise a toast to Robert M. Parker Jr. he made wine fun.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Avengers: Endgame

Endings are tough. They are doubly problematic when you are trying to do justice to a nearly eleven-year storyline. Avengers: Endgame manages to do a great job at fashioning an ending to volume 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Two weeks after the movie has been released, I’m not going to reveal any of the major plot points but there are some things I want to discuss which require a little more revelation. Which means if you haven’t seen the movie stop reading now.

The first quarter of the movie is what the world looks like after Thanos snapped his fingers killing half of all life at the end of Infinity War. Our heroes are scarred by the loss. If we needed a reminder the first scene is Hawkeye losing his entire family. Captain Marvel arrives from the summons of Nick Fury at the end of Infinity War. Angry and sad they know where Thanos is and go after him. With two hours of movie left you can figure out they don’t succeed.

Then the movie leaps ahead five years. Things have dramatically changed. The remining heroes are all dealing with loss in their own ways. One goes to group therapy. One takes charge of coordinating the response to threats on Earth and the galaxy. One becomes a vigilante. One drowns himself in video games and beer. One finds a way to reconcile his inner and outer demons into a new whole. This is a short passage within the overall film, but it is one of my favorites. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo want to take a moment to show the cost of losing to heroes who have always saved the day. Five years later they each are still coming to terms with it.

Then a path to redemption appears. It requires the team to come together to try a long shot to fix things. They split up into teams each sent on a specific mission. As it was in Infinity War my favorite was the combination of Rocket Raccoon and Thor. I have enjoyed these two together so much over the last two movies I dearly want them to have a movie-length adventure all their own. Each mission finds an emotional resonance with the characters involved. This is where much of the groundwork laid over previous films is paid off. When characters run into other characters from their own movies it reinforces the interconnectedness of everything.

The missions succeed but the final battle remains. This is probably my least favorite part of it all. In trying to have everyone on the field for the final throwdown it got overly chaotic. There are some nice moments like when the female Avengers stand together in one passage. That our heroes win is a given.

What was nice was the epilogue where everyone takes stock of the price paid to win. There are deaths and poignant endings for many of our beloved heroes. As volume 1 comes to a close I like where this leaves the MCU as volume 2 begins.

I am ready to let Wakanda, and Black Panther, become the new center of things. Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man look like the cornerstones of this next iteration. Volume 2 starts with a wide-open universe to explore. I can’t wait.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Guild Codex: Spellbound Series by Annette Marie

As we are now a few weeks away from Memorial Day and the beginning of the summer I am starting to cast around for new series to read. One reason I like them when they are new is the author has generally submitted three or four manuscripts before the first one is published. It means the books come quickly. So even though it has only been a year I can find two or three entries to take up my lazy summer days. If I hadn’t made the mistake of trying to read just a little of the first book in Annette Marie’s new series “The Guild Codex: Spellbound” I would have these in my queue. Instead I was hooked and blitzed my way through the three books that have been published over the last year or so.

Ms. Marie has been an author of Young Adult urban fantasy. With “The Guild Codex” she is turning to a more grown-up version within the genre. Each book has a title with a noun and a cocktail. Book one is called “Three Mages and a Margarita”. In that book we meet Tori a down-on-her luck human looking for a job. She goes to a bar to apply for a bartending job. Instead of an interview she is asked to work a shift. As she steps behind the rail, she realizes this is no regular bar. It is populated by supernatural beings. No place left to turn she treats them as she would anyone else; with a sharp-tongued disdain. By the time she has ended her shift she has shown she can survive as the bartender at The Guild Codex. Tori is the stand-in for the reader as she needs what is happening explained to her. This is a common urban fantasy trope. It works here because Tori also reacts appropriately to what she describes. I like the casual way she uses profanity. It reminds me of the television character Veronica Mars. Another reason this series drew me in.

Annette Marie

Ms. Marie keeps the books moving at a fast pace. She has a well-conceived magic system. Tori has a single romantic interest among her new-found companions; and she thinks her way out of the situations she is placed in. Even though there is some romance these books are more like action movies. Think “Fast and Furious” level with about the same amount of romance. If you read a lot of urban fantasy many of the plot points will be familiar. Enough so that things that might be plot twists for first-time readers will not be for one who enjoys the genre. What makes me want to return for succeeding books is the characters and the words they are given to speak. The Guild Codex: Spellbound succeeds on all those levels.

All those qualities also make it perfect vacation reading. The fourth book will be out any day now. Which means if you need something to take with you over Memorial Day weekend these should fit the bill.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Virus of Spoilers

These current days feel like Geek Mardi Gras. There is so much fun stuff happening. Part of that fun, for most, is the anticipation. As I sat in the theatre on Thursday night before Avengers: Endgame I was ready to see the ending. It is part of my Geek street cred that I have seen every Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel movie first day first showing. It matters to nobody but me. What has been an invisible merit badge on my invisible Geek Eagle Scout uniform has now become a necessity. That’s because of the scourge of spoilers.

Before I start ranting on my soapbox, I want to distinguish about what I am talking about. There are fans of any show who want to know everything including what is going to happen. They will drive to the set and take pictures from far away to try and figure out the future. I have no problems with that. That is fans being fans. The reason I don’t have a problem with that is that community generally keeps to itself. If you are of similar mindset you can find that information and willingly immerse yourself. To those groups I say keep on enjoying your fandom.

It is the other kinds, not the obsessed who will serve the other obsessed. I’m talking about the jerks who just must let you know that they know something. My first experience with this kind of idiot came in November of 1977. I had won tickets to an early preview screening of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It was in one of the largest theatres in South Florida which held about 1,500 people. We get to the end where a fleet of small alien ships have made contact with humans on the top of Devil’s Tower. It is an exhilarating scene which feels like the payoff for what we have been watching. As the ships fly off you are made to think this is first contact. Then at this screening as loud as if he was using a megaphone some jerk says, “Here comes the big ship!” If I was sitting next to him, I would’ve whipped him with Twizzlers. When we were walking out my friends and I remarked about what a moron he was.

Those were pre-Internet days. Now it doesn’t have to be a loud-mouthed lout in the theatre. It can just be an idiot a thousand miles away who wants to ruin it for others. I don’t know when it got so bad. I know that nobody went around spoiling the key moment in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”. I prefaced every conversation with, “Have you seen it yet?” Because that is part of the communal experience of going to see a movie with a few hundred other people. My favorite time in the movie theatre has been that shared delight at a plot twist where everyone makes a noise.

Nowadays people can’t go visit their favorite internet sites for fear of having a plot point spoiled. I went on YouTube last night and because I have been watching Avengers: Endgame clips leading up to it the algorithm is going to put them at the top of the page. At 10pm near the end of the first day of showing there was a clip which someone had filmed off a movie screen titled with a key plot twist. If I could I’d turn them into the studio.

This has caused people to stay off the internet entirely until they see the movie. One set of idiots cause this. As much as I enjoy being a Geek in this period of time; those who live to put spoilers out aren’t Geeks they’re jerks.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Faith of Friendship

1

I am not an atheist despite being a scientist. I will always take facts over the fantastic, yet I also believe there is a spiritual component to my life. I was taken through the Catholic Church all the way to Confirmation. The scientific mind driving the older priest crazy while the younger one, Father Leonardi, seemed amused. He took me serious enough to answer instead of bluster. The part of me which is still Catholic, is because of him. I am happy to commune with the higher spirit in my own way while respecting all who choose a different path.

I was reminded this week as Passover and Easter fall on the same weekend that my horizons were broadened in high school because of my friends I call my “family by choice”. The one I was most temperamentally like was Rich. We could bounce off each other until our friends would yell at us to “Shut Up!”. Which would achieve the desired effect while we cackled. Fifty years later we still try our loved one’s patience.

I spent a lot of time at my friend’s homes. Rich’s parents were the ones most likely to engage us in conversation. One of the key conversations I had in my life on bigotry was Rich’s dad showing me the pamphlets which were passed around about Jews by white supremacy organizations. It was eye-opening on how easy it was to demonize another race. It is one of the earliest conversations I remember having with an adult on a serious subject. I can say the foundation of my beliefs on that subject were formed that day.

I don’t remember when exactly that conversation took place but upon the next Passover, I was invited to the family Seder. It was a chance to see something more of the Jewish faith other than the Bar Mitzvahs I had been to. Rich’s dad and grandfather took us through all the ceremony explaining everything to me. It was something I soaked up greedily. Along with the food. I am not a good singer and while part of a Passover Seder is singing songs, I kept my voice down. Until we sang Chad Gadya. It was the last song of the night and I decided to give it my all pitching my voice low for the three syllables in the title.

I’ve been to both of Rich’s children’s Mitzvahs. I mentioned my enjoyment of that earlier conversation with Rich’s dad. As a teenager I didn’t have the perspective to know how important it was. It was nice for me to let him know how his words shaped the adult I became.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about where I do place my faith. One of those places is in the friendship of my family and friends. It may not be a church, but it is where I feel the spirit the most.

Mark Behnke