Thursday, 6 August 2009

You know all those dangerous mutants you hear about on the news? I'm the worst one.

So I was reading an interview with Stan Lee, creator of almost every single iconic comic book character under the Marvel banner, and something caught my eye. He was discussing his career and what not when the conversation turned to my personal favourite Lee invention, The X-Men. Lee explained that the initial idea for the X-Men arose from his frustration with having to come up with blatantly ludicrous scenarios in which ordinary schmos obtain the ability to shoot laser beams from their toes or something. And so he decided to develop a bunch of heroes and villains whose super powers were caused by genetic mutations. Rather than, say, gaining the ability to fly after a bus carrying atomic waste fell on top of them, this new breed of heroes were simply born special. That way Lee could devote all his attention to the character itself and not have to worry too much about how it got there in the first place. And to be honest it's actually a very clever way of doing things. Why rack your brains trying to think of something unique and inventive when a one size fits all solution will do? I mean say what you want about Stan Lee, but the dude knows his stuff when it comes to productivity. Genetic mutations huh? That's not working hard. That's working smart.

Speaking of the X-Men, I finally got a chance to watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine the other day. And, well, it is what it is. I mean it isn't a bad movie per se. It's just kinda lifeless. And watching it only served to remind me what a massive disappointment the X-Men movie franchise turned out to be. The first film was good. The second was great. And then the studio FOX, displaying the same wisdom that made them give Babylon AD a green light (Gee Note: Current score on Rotten Tomatoes? 7%. No really. Only 7% of all the reviews compiled by the site thought Babylon AD was barely passable. The remaining 93% classed the movie as unwatchable. Which for a movie starring Vin Diesel must be a first. Oh wait…) decided to replace the entire creative force responsible for it's success with writers Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg and the director Brett Ratner. Three men who, let's face it, have managed to avoid critical acclaim like any sane person avoids Lindsey Lohan. Unsurprisingly five billion people went to see the third movie and most left disappointed. Still it made money so all is right with the world I guess.

It wasn't just the viewing public that suffered from this decline in quality. One of the highlights of X-Men 2 was an actor named Aaron Stanford, who played the angst ridden teenager Pyro. Despite not being the biggest name on set, nor given all that much screen time comparatively, Pyro managed to steal the scene wherever he went. It was as if Stanford had managed to channel the spirit of an angry James Dean and applied it to a messed up kid who had woovy bezerk mind powers over fire. One felt that with just one more performance as this "on the edge" persona under his belt, Stanford would be firmly established as a future star. Sadly, under the direction of Messers Ratner, Penn, and Kinberg, Pyro became a marginalised figure in the third film, reduced to standing in the background and scowling a bit. Hell even Vinnie Jones' Juggernaught was given a bigger role than our boy Aaron, despite the fact that Vinnie can't really act and the only thing they had for Juggers to do was run through a couple of walls (Gee Note: By the way, Nanny from the cartoon series Count Duckula used to do the exact same thing. The difference of course being that it was entertaining when a massive animated hen was doing it. A jacked up ex soccer star on the other hand? No. Not so much).

Aaron Stanford was last seen doing a voice over for the videogame Call of Duty. Which I'm pretty sure won't be listed as one of his career highlights when all is said and done. You can't help but think that maybe he'd be better off if he really could control fire. At least that way he could make a living from variety shows like America's Got Talent. I mean a salesman who can kinda sing opera is all well and good, but compared to a real life Human Torch the guy wouldn't stand a chance. There's loads of people out there who can competently belt out a tune. How many people can make handkerchiefs explode with the power of their mind?

Well, amazingly, there used to be a chap who it was claimed could do just that. Step forward and take a bow Mr A. W. Underwood.

A. W. Underwood was an African American gentleman born sometime around 1855. He was a resident of Paw Paw, Michigan (Gee Note: What a great name. You know the World would be a better place if everywhere had a fun name like that. Think about it. If Baltimore was named something like, oh I don't know, Bouncy Town then The Wire would have been a television series about competitive cake baking or something) and by 1882 had become something of a local celebrity thanks to his unique "talent".

But what exactly was that talent? Allow me to hand you over to Paw Paw's own Dr. L. C. Woodman. The following is taken from the December 1st 1882 edition of The New York Sun, which itself had reprinted the story from Woodman's article in Michigan Medical News some months previously.

"I have a singular phenomenon in the shape of a young man living here, that I have studied with much interest, and I am satisfied that his peculiar power demonstrates that electricity is the nerve force beyond dispute. His name is Wm. Underwood, aged 27 years, and his gift is that of generating fire through the medium of his breath, assisted by manipulations with his hands. He will take anybody's handkerchief, and hold it to his mouth, and rub it vigorously with his hands while breathing on it, and immediately it bursts into flames and burns until consumed. He will strip, and will rinse out his mouth thoroughly, and submit to the most rigorous examination to preclude the possibility of any humbug, and then by his breath, blown upon any paper, or cloth, envelop it in flames. He will, while out gunning, lie down, after collecting dry leaves, and by breathing on them start a fire."

Two things are immediately apparent from this report. One is that Woodman claims to have thoroughly investigated this phenomenon and could find no signs of foul play. Secondly if you were handkerchief salesman in Michigan during the mid to late 1800's then, bro, you were in luck.

Woodman put Underwood through a series of tests, including washing his mouth out with various mixtures and making him wear a clown suit surgical gloves. Regardless Underwood continued to set fire to things by breathing on them, leaving the good doctor in a state of bewilderment.

The case produced much debate amongst the learned medicine men. A common theory put forward was that Underwood was hoodwinking Woodman by using a small piece of phosphorus held in his gums. Phosphorus is a volatile chemical element that ignites in air at around 30 degrees centigrade, which is slightly below body temperature. As a persons gums are external to the body they are a wee bit cooler than the 36.8 degrees centigrade that we humans generally regulate ourselves at. Therefore phosphorus could theoretically be held in the gums without fear of igniting it (Gee Note: Although to be honest with you I'll be buggered if I'm going to try it). Assuming this works Underwood would simply spit the piece of phosphorus in to the cloth or leaves or whatever, and warm it up with his hands. As soon as it hits 88 miles per hour 30 degrees then hey presto instant fire.

Nonsense claimed others. Woodman was a man of science after all, and Underwood was the subject to months of rigorous tests and examinations. Surely if Underwood was concealing a piece of phosphorous it would have been discovered rather early in the process. Sadly, as no one else could come up with another explanation that would be even remotely plausible, the scientific community gave up on investigating this bizarre trait and concentrated on other things.

Nowadays not much is known about Underwood outside of this remarkable report. Information on how he lived, died, and if he had any children is scarce at best. Which means that despite causing quite a stir back in the day A. W. Underwood has now faded in to obscurity.

And in that case maybe he and Aaron Stanford have more in common than just fire.


J. Thomas said...

Jack Kirby actually did the bulk of the work on X-Men. Lee has a habit of claiming everything under the Comics sun was his creation and his alone.

Gee said...

The thing with Stan Lee is he gets a lot of bad press, and in some cases deservedly so, for hogging all the limelight as far as being the creative force behind Marvel's success is concerned. There was a period during the 70's and 80's where artists like Kirby & Steve Ditko were marginalised in favour of worshipping at the alter of THE LEE. Which was of course completely unfair.

Problem is nowadays the artists are given, in my opinion, way too much credit for their work on said titles. It's almost become fashionable to shout "Lee's a hack. Ditko and Kirby, they were the real geniuses". Which is revionsist history of the worst kind. And it's simply not true.

The way that most of these comic book titles were created was very similar to the way Hollywood works now. The producer (Lee) thinks up a story, comes up with brief synopsis and then give those details to a scriptwriter (Kirby/Ditko) to fill in the blanks. The only difference being that in Hollywood the producer then doesn't come back and write the characters dialogue after the script writer has finished fleshing out the plot.

So while Kirby may have done the bulk of the work in regards to the look and feel of the X-Men, as well as basically developing individual characters by himself, the initial concept is still Lee's. So therefore they deserve equal credit for the X-Men and anything else they created. It's not really fair on either of them to say one did more than the other.