Where did pop culture’s most dramatic sound come from?

Monday, February 7th, 2022

Where did pop culture’s most dramatic sound — dun, dun duuun! — come from?

On screen, a dramatic “dun, dun duuun” has appeared in everything from Disney’s Fantasia to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to The IT Crowd. In 2007, a YouTuber scored a video of a melodramatic prairie dog with the three beats, earning over 43m views and a solid place in internet history. Yet though many of us are familiar with the sound, no one seems to know exactly where it came from. Try to Google it and … dun, dun, duuun! Its origins are a mystery.

Taken together, these three duns are what’s known as a sting — a brief bit of music that media producers can use to break up the action or punctuate a theatrical moment.


Suspense, an American horror show broadcast on CBS Radio between 1942 and 1962, was filled to the brim with sound effects and dramatic stings. Just over three minutes into its first episode (after bells, the sound of a train, and plenty of piano), a three-beat sting lingers on its last note when a man discovers his wife is potentially an undead poisoner. But it’s difficult to pinpoint the very first on-air dun dun duuun, and it’s likely the musical phrase predates the radio.


In 1940’s Fantasia, Disney’s recording of Stravinsky’s 1913 Rite of Spring emphasised two duns and a lingering duuun at the end of a dinosaur battle (though the composer’s original features a similar three beats, they’re not as pronounced or as recognisable as the sound we know today). From Tom and Jerry to Ren and Stimpy, dun dun duuuns also cropped up in cartoons, ensuring the sound became a television mainstay. Young Frankenstein’s version debuted in the 1970s, and it was this recording that was used for the dramatic prairie dog viral vid.


In 1983, recordings library KPM Music asked Walter to produce four vinyl albums of musical phrases known as The Editor’s Companion. With an orchestral lineup of around 35 to 40 people, Walter recorded hundreds of tracks over the course of 18 months, including chase music, sleighbells, and a four-second, three-beat sting called Shock Horror (A) that comprises the notes D#, C and F#.

“It’s musical shorthand which says a lot very quickly,” Walter says of the first of five melodramatic exclamations that run all the way down to Shock Horror (E).


The devil’s interval is a dissonant combination of tones that unsettles the listener because it is unresolved. You’ve likely heard the devil’s interval as the opening two notes to The Simpson’s theme tune, as well as the beginning of Maria from West Side Story (Walter helpfully sings both). Yet in both cases, the tension is immediately resolved with the next note, producing a pleasant effect. “But if you don’t resolve it, you’re left feeling unsatisfied,” Walter explains, “That’s what it boils down to.”

When Walter was charged with creating horror stings for The Editor’s Companion, “the obvious thing to do” for Shock Horror (A) was use the interval — his is “just an extremely abbreviated version, about as short as you can get”.


The recording has since been used in SpongeBob SquarePants, Roseanne, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Beavis and Butt-Head, as well as adverts for cereal, snacks and a home improvement store.

The Great Santini exemplifies what we now call toxic masculinity

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022

I recently watched The Great Santini, and it opens with the titular protagonist leading his Marine aviators against Naval aviators in one-on-one dogfights, lining up their sights and declaring when they would take the kill shot. This seemed odd to me, because the setting was 1962, and the fighter jets were F-4 Phantoms — which did not have old-fashioned guns going into the Vietnam war. (That was one of the major points of Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.)

Sure enough, the Phantoms were an update to the book:

The story, for the most part, follows the book. The movie’s major divergence is the absence of Ben Meecham’s Jewish best friend Sammy. The spelling of the family’s surname was also changed from Meecham to Meechum. Also changed is Meecham’s aircraft; in the book, he flies and commands a squadron of F-8 Crusaders, while in the film the fighters shown are F-4 Phantom IIs.

The F-8 was the last American fighter with guns as its primary weapon, earning it the title “The Last of the Gunfighters”.

The Great Santini exemplifies what we now call toxic masculinity, and his wisecracking older daughter compares him to Godzilla — which got me to look up the illustrious monster, who made his American debut in 1956:

Gojira is a portmanteau of the Japanese words: gorira (“gorilla”) and kujira (“whale”), owing to the fact that in one planning stage, Godzilla was described as “a cross between a gorilla and a whale”, due to its size, power and aquatic origin.

I was surprised when the oldest son’s high school basketball coach made a reference to — pardon my French — poontang, because I thought that was a term only popularized after Vietnam, but the term goes back decades:

1920s: alteration of French putain ‘prostitute’.

That concept grew out of Jim Henson’s experience adapting Sesame Street to the requirements of foreign markets

Friday, January 21st, 2022

The original Fraggle Rock was made with the intention of it airing in various forms internationally:

That concept grew out of Jim Henson’s experience adapting Sesame Street to the requirements of foreign markets. The human “wraparound” segments were produced separately in several countries, so the viewer could always relate to the world of the program. The series has appeared now in over 10 countries and languages. The head producer was Wesley James Tomlinson.

The original North American version, filmed in Toronto, features an inventor named Doc (played by Gerry Parkes) and his dog Sprocket. This wraparound was also used in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland, Scandinavia, Spain, Japan, and Eastern Europe. Dutch, Scandinavian, Spanish, Japanese, and Eastern European shows were dubbed in their respective languages.

The British inserts were filmed at the TVS Studios in Southampton, and later at the TVS Television Theatre in Gillingham, Kent (both studios since closed and demolished) and presents Fraggle Rock as a rock-filled sea island with a lighthouse. Exterior footage was that of St Anthony’s Lighthouse located near Falmouth in Cornwall. The lighthouse keeper is The Captain (played by Fulton Mackay), a retired sailor who lives with his faithful dog Sprocket. In the third season, as MacKay had died in 1987, the role was played by John Gordon Sinclair as P.K., (the Captain’s nephew) and in the fourth and final season by Simon O’Brien as B.J. (the Captain’s son). In 2014, 35 of these British wraparounds were still missing, believed wiped, although subsequent recoveries have gradually reduced this number.[7] As of December 2020, all 96 wraparounds have been found and handed over to the BFI, confirming that the entire UK production still exists in some shape or form.[8] Nickelodeon repeated it in the UK from 1993, as did Boomerang and Cartoonito in 2007. The episodes shown were the Canadian versions.

In the German version, the action takes place beneath the workshop of the inventor Doc (played by Hans-Helmut Dickow). The series was named Die Fraggles with 85 of the 96 produced episodes being presented in German.

In France, the wraparound segments take place in a bakery with its version of Doc (played by Michel Robin) who worked as a baker and a French Sprocket called Croquette. Doc inherited the home from his eccentric Uncle Georges (who was a noted inventor). Thus, when the frame story required the use of a mechanical device, Doc would find yet another of Uncle Georges’s machines. Plot-lines also frequently involved the elegant but unseen Madame Pontaven (who Doc repeatedly attempted to impress and invite to dinner with no success). Not all of the 96 episodes were produced in French.

The omission was glaring

Monday, January 17th, 2022

On Sept. 25, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures held its opening gala, and influential Academy members were outraged that Hollywood’s origin story was conspicuously absent:

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who was on hand for the gala, was immediately struck by the lapse. “I would’ve hoped that any honest historical assessment of the motion picture industry — its origins, its development, its growth — would include the role that Jews played in building the industry from the ground up,” he says. “As I walked through, I literally turned to the person I was there with and said to him, ‘Where are the Jews?’ The omission was glaring.”

That sentiment is being echoed from Hollywood’s C-suites to the halls of academia. “It’s sort of like building a museum dedicated to Renaissance painting, and ignoring the Italians,” says Hollywood historian and Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty. “That generation of early moguls — Carl Laemmle, Jack Warner, we know all their names — is a terrific story of upward mobility, living the American dream. It’s one of the great contributions of American Jews to American culture.”

I remember watching a documentary a few years back on the early days of Hollywood, and I was shocked that its message was effectively, the Jews control Hollywood, and that’s great! It was jarring to see such an unacceptable claim presented as true and good.

A few decades before that, it was acknowledged and good for a laugh:

Years ago at the elaborate annual SHARE fund-raising party in Hollywood, Phil Silvers and Polly Bergen did a number called “The Rabbi and the Nun,” in which he and she, suitably costumed, argued over who had the most influence in the industry, the Jews or the Catholics.

The nun offered the likes of Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Bing Crosby and Leo McCarey, the director. The rabbi countered with Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, the Brothers Warner, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle and an inexhaustible list of producers, directors and actors.

The contest was so one-sided that at last the nun said in exasperation, “The next thing you know, you’ll be telling me that our Dear Lord Himself was….” Her voice trailed off.

Agnosticism, evolutionism, and subjectivism are three characteristics of modernism

Thursday, January 6th, 2022

Dune’s thematic core, Edward Welsch argues, is fundamentally theological:

Herbert, an ex-Catholic, published Dune in 1965, the concluding year of the Second Vatican Council, during which a progressive spirit of reform was unleashed within the Church. A school of liberal theology dubbed “modernism” that had been suppressed by conservative popes during the previous century was resurrected in a new generation of neo-modernist theologians who took the guiding reins of the Council. Their aim was, in the words of the excommunicated modernist priest Alfred Loisy, “to adapt Catholicism to the intellectual, moral, and social needs of today.”

The six Dune novels are a product of this zeitgeist. Herbert used his science fiction to capture the modernist, existentialist theology dominant in the 1960s and to project its consequences onto the far future. It is a future in which truth is subjective and religion is a tool disconnected from spiritual reality. There, dogma evolves and adapts to the needs of the material world, and the gene replaces the soul.


Agnosticism, evolutionism, and subjectivism are three characteristics of modernism identified by Pope Pius X in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (“Feeding the Lord’s Flock”). Agnosticism is reflected in the modernist idea that spiritual truth is beyond the capacity of human knowledge to comprehend and human words to express. In this view, all human religions are equal, in that they are imperfect attempts made by humans to commune with God. As a result, dialogue with other religions is pursued rather than evangelization and proselytization.

In Dune, the results of agnosticism are taken to extremes through pan-galactic ecumenism. The authoritative scripture is the Orange Catholic Bible. This scripture fuses all major religions, listed in the novels as: Mahayana Christianity, Zensunni Catholicism, Buddislam, and an Islamic offshoot called the Maometh Saari, Maometh being the “Third Muhammed.” The priestly class is the all-female order of the Bene Gesserit — a portmanteau of the Benedictine and Jesuit Catholic orders. Since the ultra-liberal modern-day Jesuits routinely call for the ordination of women within their flagship magazine America, the Bene Gesserit are another sign of Herbert taking progressive theological trends to their logical conclusion.

How can we create a polemical film that viscerally convinces people to Believe Experts?

Wednesday, January 5th, 2022

I haven’t watched Don’t Look Up, but Scott Alexander gives a quick summary of the plot before noting that it can’t stop contradicting itself:

It depicts a monstrous world where the establishment is conspiring to keep the truth from you in every possible way. But it reserves its harshest barbs for anti-establishment wackos, who are constantly played for laughs.


Take this seriously, and the obvious moral of the story is: all conspiracy theories are true. If some rando bagging groceries at the supermarket tells you that every scientist in the world is lying, you should trust her 1000 percent.

But for some reason, everyone else thinks the moral of this story is Believe Experts. Worse, I think the scriptwriter and director and people like that also thought the moral of this story was Believe Experts. I think they asked themselves “How can we create a polemical film that viscerally convinces people to Believe Experts”, and they somehow came up with this movie, where the experts are bad and wrong and destroy humanity.


Progressivism, like conservatism and every other political philosophy, is big and complicated and self-contradictory. It tells a lot of stories to define and justify itself. Here are two of them:

First, a story of scruffy hippies and activists protesting the Man, that embodiment of capitalism and conformism and respectability. Think Stonewall, where gay people on the margins of society spat in the face of their supposed betters and demanded their rights. Even academics are part of this tradition: Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent accuses the mainstream media of being the Man. It’s jingoist and obsessed with justifying America’s foreign adventures; we need brave truth-tellers to point out where it goes wrong. Environmentalism shares some of this same ethos. In Erin Brockovich, a giant corporation is poisoning people, lying about it, and has bribed or corrupted everyone else into taking their side. Only one brave activist is able to put the pieces together and stand up for ordinary people.

Second, a story that comes out of the Creationism Wars of the early 00s. We are the “reality-based community”, the sane people, the normal people, the people with college degrees and non-spittle-covered keyboards. They are unwashed uneducated lunatics who think that evolution is a lie and Obama was born in Kenya and vaccines cause autism and COVID isn’t real. Maybe they should have been clued in by the fact that 100% of smart people and institutions are on our side, and they are just a couple of weirdos who don’t even agree with each other consistently. If this narrative has a movie, it must be Idiocracy — though a runner up might be Behind the Curve, the documentary about flat-earthers.

The first narrative says “there’s a consensus reality constructed by respectable people, and a few wild-eyed weirdos saying they’ve seen through the veil and it’s all lies…and you should trust the weirdos!” The second starts the same way, but ends “…and you should trust consensus reality!” They’re not actually contradictory — you could be talking about different questions! You are talking about different questions! But they’re contradictory at the mythic narrative level where they’re trying to operate. On that level, there should always be a good guy and a bad guy, and you should be able to tell who’s who by their facial hair or at least the color of their clothing. You shouldn’t have to learn a bunch of facts about the biochemistry of hexavalent chromium (or whatever it was Erin Brockovich was investigating) to resolve the object-level issue; nobody has time for that!


Partisan hacks — which includes all of us these days — have become masters of accepting contradictory narratives. One day your side controls the government, and you’re pro-unity and anti-obstructionism. The next day, the other guys control the government, and suddenly obstructionism is a necessary part of a vibrant democratic process. One day your side controls the Supreme Court, and it’s a vital check and balance against majoritarian assaults on human rights. The next day the other guys control the Supreme Court, and it’s an anti-democratic gerontocracy that tries to rule in place of the elected government. One day someone is mean to you on Twitter, and it’s cyberbullying and abuse and infliction of mental trauma. The next day you’re mean to someone else on Twitter, and did you know that tone policing via weaponized demands for civility entrenches the power of the already-privileged?

Each of these positions accretes its own narrative — a stock collection of examples, stereotypes, and associated emotions that tells you whether it’s good or bad. When your side is against Twitter harassment, you hear lots of stories of sympathetic people being harassed by evil people and driven to suicide. You see interviews with their crying loved ones. Maybe someone even makes a movie about cyberbullying that viscerally drives in just how hurtful it can be. But when your side is doing the harassing, you hear historical examples of how tone policing and weaponized civility demands produced chilling effects on noble people who wanted to make positive changes. Now the movies include ugly obese Boomers who say sneeringly “hey, watch your tone” when anyone calls them out on their misdeeds, then smirkingly go on to misdeed again, protected from all criticism. You end up with one moral narrative around how Twitter harassment is extraordinarily, villainously bad, and another narrative around how it’s wonderfully, heroically good.


Many years ago, I wrote a post called The Cowpox Of Doubt. I complained about how people loved talking about flat-earthism or Holocaust denialism or whatever. The more you think about those kinds of questions, the more you absorb lessons like: everything has an obvious right answer, anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot, anyone trying to introduce subtlety is a concern troll, the proper length of time to debate something before dismissing it as obvious and your opponents as acting in bad faith is zero seconds. I argued you should basically never think about flat-earthism. Instead, think about when AGI will happen, or whether inflation will stabilize, or any of a thousand other questions where there are smart people on both sides of the issue. That way, you learn the right skills for solving hard questions, which are the only type you ever have any trouble solving in the first place.

There’s a very specific shot of three ornithopters

Monday, December 27th, 2021

Denis Villeneuve discusses Dune and Avatar with James Cameron and explains his “epic” style:

I would say that the idea was to try to bring back humanity to its right position in the ecosystem, like in the book where the humans are not in control of nature. There’s not a lot of middle ground shots: landscape and faces. I learned about the power of landscape working on documentaries at the National Film Board of Canada when I was an assistant back to Pierre Perrault, a documentary filmmaker. We went nearby the North Pole on Ellesmere Island. We spent several weeks there.


What amazed me is all the emotions that were coming every morning when you were waking up. It felt so cinematic at the time. It was a very important lesson for me, how to listen to nature and the power of nature in order to create cinema. That’s part of my, let’s say, film school.

Villeneuve mentions that he wanted to bring a sensation of realism to Dune, and Cameron notes the same thing that struck me:

If I can use an example of what you’re talking about from within your film, there’s a very specific shot of three ornithopters. You see two initially and they’re stacked on a very long lens shot. Then a third one swoops in across the foreground. You instantly made your exotic aircraft design familiar. We’ve all seen that shot in “Black Hawk Down” or whatever. Right?

Back in 2005, I had a similar thought about Genndy Tartokovsky’s Clone Wars Chapter 21

Asimov’s heroes looked and acted like sci-fi’s readership

Monday, December 20th, 2021

Zachary D. Carter notes that Edward Gibbon was writing from a moment of disillusion with the British project:

The first volume of his magnum opus was published in 1776, and the American Revolution had made clear to Gibbon that his nation was just as capable of decadent violence as ancient Rome had been. Throughout his four-volume masterpiece, Gibbon interrogates the roles of what we would now call structural forces in Roman society — religion, class, trade, technology, military and administrative capacity, ideology — each of which Asimov gives its own treatment as the dominant theme of a separate Foundation story. But Asimov was not writing amid an embarrassing American military defeat. He was writing instead as a Jewish immigrant enthusiastic about America’s belated entrance into the fight against fascism. Asimov’s Foundation stories are battles between good and evil, but the Galactic Empire is largely absent from them. Once Seldon has predicted its demise, the empire is of little use in Asimov’s narrative. Instead, he moves on to explore state formation, economic expansion, and outworlder alliances, in which the Foundation supplies the good guys and the bad guys want to destroy the Foundation. Asimov’s heroes are witty, clever, and forward-thinking; his villains are angry, violent, and beholden to tradition. Everything is a contest between reason and ignorance. Only the smartest people at the best university in the galaxy can get humanity out of its mess, using the best technology and the most sophisticated mathematics, which of course will eventually come to fruition as a new, benevolent, galaxy-spanning empire of reason.

This break with Gibbon’s history — which was fundamentally an examination of the follies of empire — turned out to be a stroke of commercial genius. Asimov’s themes were perfectly attuned to the technocratic American exceptionalism of the postwar years, when Americans enjoyed the fruits of a new empire while denying that their government’s political hegemony could be considered an empire at all. Asimov’s heroes looked and acted more like sci-fi’s readership than the square-jawed space cowboys of Thrilling Wonder Stories did. Asimov’s heroes were nerds, and reading his stories would eventually become a rite of passage for generations of freaks and geeks.

The novel is in conversation with classics like 1984

Monday, December 13th, 2021

When I first heard of Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit — which I still haven’t watched, despite hearing good things — it never occurred to me that it was based on a 40-year-old book — one that does not describe its protagonist as anything like Audrey Hepburn playing chess, by the way. What actually jumped out at me about the book, beyond its mere existence, was the author, Walter Tevis. I immediately recognized the name but couldn’t quite place it.

Tevis wrote the science-fiction classic, Mockingbird, which I’ve been meaning to read — and which just showed up on Tor’s list of Golden Age and New Wave SF classics that should be adapted right now, in the wake of Dune and Foundation‘s film and TV adaptations:

The novel is in conversation with classics like 1984 but is built on a reversal of empowering people through the power of books and literature. The high-concept, post-apocalyptic setting and narrative would make for great set pieces and visuals. Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler has a knack for rich, compelling characters and his work is ripe for adaptation. Given the recent success of Netflix’s adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit and the buzz over Showtime’s upcoming The Man Who Fell to Earth series makes this a perfect time to adapt the Nebula-nominated Mockingbird as well.

Netflix’s greatest impact on pop culture will not be allowing us to binge watch

Thursday, November 18th, 2021

I haven’t watched Squid Game, but the Korean show is on pace to be the biggest hit in the history of Netflix:

Netflix has been investing in foreign language programming since 2015. It has spent more than $1 billion on Korean programs alone. This is the first Korean show to break through on this scale, and it is driving millions of new viewers to other East Asian series like “Sweet Home” and “Alice in Borderland.”

When all is said and done, Netflix’s greatest impact on pop culture will not be allowing us to “binge watch,” or stream TV on-demand. It will be globalizing the entertainment business, creating a platform for people from more than 190 countries to watch stories from all over the world.

On the Road is a terrible book about terrible people

Monday, November 8th, 2021

On the Road is a terrible book about terrible people:

Jack Kerouac and his terrible friends drive across the US about seven zillion times for no particular reason, getting in car accidents and stealing stuff and screwing women whom they promise to marry and then don’t.

But this is supposed to be okay, because they are visionaries. Their vision is to use the words “holy”, “ecstatic”, and “angelic” at least three times to describe every object between Toledo and Bakersfield. They don’t pass a barn, they pass a holy vision of a barn, a barn such as there must have been when the world was young, a barn whose angelic red and beatific white send them into mad ecstasies. They don’t almost hit a cow, they almost hit a holy primordial cow, the cow of all the earth, the cow whose dreamlike ecstatic mooing brings them to the brink of a rebirth such as no one has ever known.


On The Road seems to be a picture of a high-trust society. Drivers assume hitchhikers are trustworthy and will take them anywhere. Women assume men are trustworthy and will accept any promise. Employers assume workers are trustworthy and don’t bother with background checks. It’s pretty neat.

But On The Road is, most importantly, a picture of a high-trust society collapsing. And it’s collapsing precisely because the book’s protagonists are going around defecting against everyone they meet at a hundred ten miles an hour.

They mistake forgotten science for fiction

Sunday, November 7th, 2021

When historically ignorant readers read science fiction decades or centuries after it was written, they can mistake forgotten science for fiction:

When the science in SF survives the passage of time, we regard it as simply ordinary science or as an insightful prediction of the future; when it turns out to be wrong, we may write it off as fiction. Cordwainer Smith, in writing about “the pain of space” in “Scanners Live In Vain” was not (just) imagining some wild Freudian fantasy about leaving the womb, but drawing on pre-spaceflight 1940s extrapolation of hallucinations and cognitive problems in aviation; but since we now know that spaceflight is psychologically safe (and the real cognitive effects like the “overview effect” don’t look like “the pain of space”), contemporary readers read it as purely fictional and ponder the deep symbolism of the fantastical concept.

Similarly, Herbert made use of psi (still taken seriously at the time), extrapolation from the use of pheromones in insects to humans (though pheromones don’t even affect sexual behavior), various wooly ideas about transgenerational memory (never passed from woo to reality — sorry, “epigenetics” ain’t it either), Walter’s theory of warfare (crankery), and multilevel group selection (still highly debated), California Human Potential Movement beliefs about trainability of raw human abilities exemplified by Dianetics etc (a profound disappointment)… As they are presented as part of worldbuilding, it’s easy to simply accept them as fiction, no more intended real than manticores (or should I say, Martians?).

This works fine for Dune 56+ years later, because they are fun, and aren’t the focus. It holds up well, like The Dragon in the Sea or the eusocial-insect fiction like Hellstrom’s Hive. In contrast, Herbert’s Destination: Void, which has almost no interesting plot or characters, and is a long author-tract about his idiosyncratic interpretations of early cybernetics & speculation about AI, is unreadable today.

So, we should keep this in mind: if there are claims about how the world works in a SF work and they are false, is that because they are fictional or just science we are no longer familiar with?


So—this alternate paradigm can neatly explain all of the oddities of the Dune breeding program! The reason it is so odd is because Herbert was drawing on the obsolete Mendelian interpretations which were heavy on epistasis and de novo mutations, as opposed to the more plausibly relevant biometric Fisherian paradigm of highly polygenic additive traits with selection on standing variation. Herbert was throughout his life interested in agriculture & genetics, as demonstrated by his demonstration home farm project and the repeated use of agricultural themes in his works (eg Hellstrom’s Hive, where a group of humans develops into eusocial insects, or The Green Brain, where human extermination of insects has catastrophically destabilized global agriculture & provoked evolution of intelligent insects).

Jack Kirby is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century

Saturday, November 6th, 2021

The new Eternals film is a reminder that, while he may not be widely recognized as such, Jack Kirby is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century:

His signature style — a fusion of pivotal artistic movements such as cubism, expressionism, surrealism, avant-garde, op art, indigenous South American, midcentury commercial and futurism, blended into a visual language all his own — and innovation in composition, dynamism and design, can be found today in virtually all forms of visual media and art, from film to advertising to photography.

Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917 to Jewish immigrants from Austria who lived in New York’s Lower East Side tenements and eked out a living in a garment factory. A Pratt Institute dropout at 14, he found success early on when he and studio partner Joe Simon created Captain America for Timely Comics in 1941, reportedly selling almost a million copies a month. His hyperkinetic, hyper-stylized, hyper-everything art seemed barely contained by the page, helping define the nascent art form and establish the superhero genre and comic book industry.

When superheroes’ popularity waned after the war, the versatile Kirby made an indelible mark on a variety of other genres, including western, horror, space adventure and giant monsters. His rampaging behemoths paralleled the rise of creature features like “Them!” in the US and kaiju films like “Godzilla” in Japan, helping make them a lasting genre. But it was teen romance, of all things, that he influenced the most; together with Simon he created “Young Romance” for Prize Comics in 1947, a runaway hit that surpassed a million copies monthly and inspired nearly a hundred copycat series. Breaking with the Archie Comics mold, it introduced Shakespearean melodrama to youth entertainment, a revolution that’s evident in today’s numerous teen shows on TV.

Just as Kirby helped define superhero comics in the 1940s, he helped redefine them in the 1960s. Timely was now called Marvel, and his and Simon’s former office assistant was now the editor-in-chief and head writer, Stan Lee. Lee brought Kirby on for what became an unprecedented, and unsurpassed by either, period of manic creativity. They created together the Fantastic Four (1961), the Hulk (1962), Thor (1962), Ant-Man (1962), Iron Man (1963), Avengers (1963), X-Men (1963), Silver Surfer (1966), Black Panther (1966) and hundreds of other heroes, villains, cast and concepts. Kirby also played a role in the creation of Spider-Man in 1962 and Daredevil in 1964 and auteured solo properties like the Eternals.

More than just a new pantheon, they created a whole new approach. They recast monsters as outcast heroes and added the drama of teen romance, appealing more to high school and college readers. Their stories had greater realism and deeper characterization, featuring heroes with relatable faults and action informed by Kirby’s youth in a street gang and combat experience as an infantry scout in France, for which he received the Bronze Star. Marvel came to be known as “The House of Ideas,” Lee as “Stan the Man” and Kirby as “King of Comics.”

Kirby also created much of the mythology for the other big publisher in comics, DC. His radical “Fourth World” saga, a magnum opus spinning off Superman into four series from 1970 to 1973, was a grand space opera about warring alien gods. It introduced Darkseid (pronounced “dark side”), a towering, imperious villain who commands the mechanized war planet of Apokolips in a quest for galactic conquest. Opposing him is his own son Orion, raised by the noble gods to be their champion, who struggles with his dark heritage and nature. Their religion and source of power is a metaphysical life force called, simply, “the Source.”

Four years later “Star Wars” was released, featuring strikingly similar concepts like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, the Dark Side, the Death Star, and the Force. Vader also resembles Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom, who hides his horrific burn scars under high-tech armor.


In 1979, he was commissioned to create concept art for a big-screen adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, “Lord of Light” (ironically, spurred by the success of “Star Wars”).

The same producer also hired him to design an entire theme park in Colorado called Science Fiction Land. Neither would come to fruition, but Kirby’s art found an even better purpose. The CIA used it for its mock production of the film “Argo,” a now-famous covert operation for the rescue of US embassy members from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.

Dune has never been unconditionally admired

Friday, October 29th, 2021

In the spring of 1984, the American Booksellers Association held its annual convention in Washington, and Washington Post critic Michael Dirda was there:

One evening, Book World — The Washington Post’s then stand-alone literary supplement — hosted a cocktail party on the roof of the paper’s now demolished headquarters at 15th and L streets NW. As I wandered around, doing my feeble best to be sociable, I noticed one gentleman standing alone, looking a bit overwhelmed but also vaguely familiar. It was Frank Herbert, whom I didn’t at first recognize because he had recently shaved off his iconic beard.

At that point I simply abandoned my attempts at glad-handing. Over the next hour Herbert and I sat in the fading sunshine and talked and talked, though only a little about “Dune” because our conversation kept drifting back to Jack Vance, Herbert’s good friend and probably the most imaginative world-builder in postwar science fiction. That conversation led me to suspect that “Dune” was, in part, Herbert’s attempt to rival Vance by envisioning every aspect of an alien civilization, including its people’s clothing, cultural traditions and religious rituals.


As a hotshot young editor back in 1984, I didn’t allow many weeks to go by before phoning my new buddy to see if he would review a book. Given that David Lynch’s then much-anticipated film of “Dune” hadn’t yet been released but was already in the news, I asked Herbert to write about a splashy, comparably promoted fantasy novel, Stephen King and Peter Straub’s “The Talisman.” In the end, he didn’t much like it, not that this mattered. Just getting Herbert to review it was a minor coup and we featured his piece on the front of Book World.


As a novel, “Dune” has never been unconditionally admired. I know sophisticated readers, devoted science fiction fans, who can’t stand it, finding Herbert’s prose inept, the action ponderous, and the whole book clumsy and tedious. But sf readers are contentious, often cruelly so, and nearly all of the field’s most beloved novels and series also have cogent and vocal detractors: Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy is dismissed as period pulp; Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” preach either militaristic jingoism or pretentious ’60s claptrap; Samuel R. Delany’s “Dhalgren” is well nigh unreadable and Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” too subtle, too theological, too clever by half. Perhaps so. Yet imaginative works that people still argue about — and “Dune” certainly belongs in this category — demonstrate their continuing vitality and relevance. They remain — to borrow a vogue phrase — part of the conversation.

If someone in America was ever obsessed with a story as a 12-year-old, it’s probably being made into a movie or TV show right now

Saturday, October 23rd, 2021

For Hollywood, it is a golden age of intellectual property, Peter Suderman says, which is to say it is a golden age of adaptation:

Seemingly every beloved genre story from the last century has been optioned and auctioned, put into development, and often produced with lavish budgets and production in hopes that this old favorite will become the next Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, or, if one is really dreaming big — and who in Hollywood isn’t? — Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hollywood’s hit-makers have dug deep into the post-war canon of beloved adolescent fantasies: If someone in America was ever obsessed with a story as a 12-year-old, it’s probably being made into a movie or TV show right now.

If there is something missing from this bounty of adaptable IP, it’s classic science fiction. Although there have been scattered attempts to adapt the Golden Age masters — Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke — and their many literary successors in the half century since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, few of these efforts have made much impact. (Remember Will Smith’s I, Robot? That’s what I thought.)


Part of the problem is that these sci-fi stories tend to be challenging to adapt: They operate at a level of scale and socio-scientific complexity that is difficult to fit into the demands of a mainstream feature-film format, or even a prestige TV series. Classic sci-fi is thinky, intricate, idiosyncratic, and sprawling in a way that so far has largely resisted successful big-screen treatment. The best of it is almost too big for the big screen.

It is with a combination of joy and relief that he declares Villeneuve’s Dune the real deal:

It is a love letter to a science fiction classic, and, in a way, to all the classics of science fiction. It is a no-compromises future-fantasy epic that operates at a scale I’ve never quite seen before. I’ve already bought tickets to see it again.


Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is half a masterpiece in a long-neglected genre, and half a science fiction masterpiece is far better than nothing at all.