Pop stuff: Origins of the Inhumans; Aces High by George Evans; Paddington

What I'm reading, watching, hearing, etc.

"The Origin of the Inhumans" is a 420-page color paperback that collects the earliest appearances of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's outcast family of superhumans from the pages of Fantastic Four and Thor.

This is mid-1960s Marvel. Lee is at his most entertainingly hyperbolic, humorous and dramatic and Kirby is in full creative flight. There are great characters, situations and creations galore.

Not only do we meet the mute but mind-bogglingly powerful Black Bolt, his living-haired girlfriend Medusa, the time/space-shifting dog Lockjaw and the rest of the Inhumans, but we're also introduced to the alien Kree race, Johnny Storm's college pal Wyatt Wingfoot (an early, respectfully treated Native American character), Blastaar the Living Bomburst and more.

Like the X-Men or Spider-Man, the Inhumans are misunderstood outsiders - metaphors for teenagers. They live apart from society, hiding in their Great Refuge or, during much of this storyline, trapped in a barrier of negative energy. They yearn to break free to express their power, to experience what the world has to offer. The tension between staying hidden, because it's safer, and becoming part of the wider world gives the stories their drama.

Though not branded as one of Marvel's new "Epic Collections," this book follows the same model: All of the Inhumans storyline from the comics is collected. Sometimes that means only excerpts of FF issues appear. But it's a smooth read, standing on its own in this form as a lengthy graphic novel. The reproduction is excellent.

It's all a great ride, almost as if you're being transported inside the Inhumans' Magna Ship or on the Fantastic Four's Jet Cycle or Pogo Plane, or any of other cool Kirby-tech vehicles on display in these pages.

"Aces High: Illustrated by George Evans" is a recent volume in Fantagraphics' artist-focused collections of classic EC Comics. It's in hardcover with black and white art supplemented by biographical essays and looks great.

Evans isn't generally mentioned when folks are listing the usual gang of EC geniuses - Kurtzman, Wood, Davis, Severin, Ingels et. al., but he is a peer to these greats.

As the title of this collection suggests, Evans strong suit was planes, and he was brilliant at them. He could adventurously aviate and dogfight with the best of them - Noel Sickles, Alex Toth and the rest. And he was fairly prolific.

Most of the stories here are set during the first World War and Evans' depictions of biplanes in battle are cinematic. He had an amazing sense of perspective. Planes are often depicted from above, so we can see the ground far below. You really get a feeling of being thousands of feet up in the sky, twisting and turning away from machine gun fire.

In the EC mold, many of the stories feature ironic twists and O. Henry endings. The war stories, from the pages of Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales are balanced out by yarns from EC's crime and suspense comics. Not overly gory, as were the horror stories that got EC in so much trouble in the 1950s, these pieces are dark and grim, and also twisty, but more psychological in nature. Spouses plot against one another, criminals looking to live on Easy Street end wander into black alleys. There are no happy endings.

Though entertaining, the suspense entries aren't as captivating as the flight stories. Evans' art is expressive and dramatic, but he's not as good at this stuff as others at EC were. His figures can be a little stiff, the faces sometimes a little frozen. Up in the air, though, nobody from EC's stable could match him.

"Paddington." My wife and I have fond memories of reading the adventures of  Michael Bond's marmalade-loving Peruvian bear to our two kids, and they of hearing the stories. So, a couple weekends back, all four of us trekked out to see this new live-action adaptation.

Though the situations our bear faces on screen are far more perilous than those in the books, "Paddington" is quite successful in capturing the whimsical and lightly subversive tone of Bond's stories. I guess even in kids' movies these days, thing must be about life and death, and a story focusing on Paddington's visit the Portebello Market with Mr. Gruber just wouldn't cut it. Oh well, the gist of things on screen remains mostly the same.

As in the books, Paddington is cute, cuddly, gentle tornado -- basically a fuzzy toddler who's always getting into one sort of inadvertent mischief or another, damaging all sorts of property along the way. You don't want to let him take a bath in your house. But you can't hate him the problems he creates. He's just too sweet. Just like that marmalade he's trailed all across the carpet.

Fortunately, the Brown family manages to tolerate it all - to varying degrees. Hugh Bonneville, who also heads up the household on "Downton Abbey," shows great comic chops as Mr. Brown, an uptight, stiff-upper-lip type who'd just as soon leave Paddington at the railway station he's named after. But Mrs. Brown, delightfully played by Sally Hawkins, is a bright-eyed eccentric who  thinks having a bear in the house just might be what the family needs. And, as you might expect, she's right. The kids come out of their shells and mature in healthy ways, Mr. Brown relaxes a bit and Paddington finds a loving new home.

Of course, before any of this happens, the Browns must rescue their new friend from the clutches of a Cruella De Vil stand-in played by Nicole Kidman who wants to stuff Paddington and stick him in the Natural History Museum. Kidman has fun with the part, as unimaginative as it is, and she's entertainingly aided and abetted by current "Doctor Who" Peter Capaldi, the Brown's cheap and snoopy neighbor. Julie Walters is also fun as the Brown's no-nonsense, unflappable housekeeper, Mrs. Bird.

It's a great cast and a pretty good movie - one of the better modern children's films I've seen in a while. There's a theme that runs gently throughout - celebrating differences and the contributions of immigrants - which is a nice message for our times, too.

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