Monday, February 4, 2013

Captain America vs. the World!!

To mark our second anniversary, Rick writes a few whimsical comments from his sand-filled bunker in central New Mexico. Then! Ben sends a communiqué from somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean...

Cap blog at its second year. A look back. A look forward.
by Rick Arthur

I just like the title, Captain America vs. the World!! I have been looking for an opportunity to use it and this post concerning the second year of the Captain America: Redefining Modern Myth blog seemed like a great place. Ben and I will take a look back at both Cap and our own personal lives in the last two years as well as sound off on what is to come in the future. Grab your star spangled shield and hang on for adventure!

Ben Alpi and I have been friends a long time and like a lot of people have stayed in touch by phone and internet. We have a lot in common including a love of movies, comics and writing. Two of my favorite things about Ben are his imagination and his willingness to explore new ideas. These talents have come in handy as he builds his career writing and making movies. I am excited to collaborate with him and the Captain America: Redefining Modern Myth blog is one great example!

The Cap blog actually arose from a long, complex series of email and phone conversations that spread out over several years. One thing which quickly escalated was signing off our emails using Captain America sounding quotes. Instead of saying "later dude," "talk to you soon bud," or "your pal," we began trading sign offs like "Liberty, justice and freedom for all..." or "Tyranny must be stopped at all costs." It didn't take long until we were giving Cap things to say and do. It must be noted that I seem to recall we dabbled with Iron Man quotes and scenarios around this time as well. The first Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man movie directed by oddball choice Jon Favreau was catching on with both comic fans and the public. There was some speculation as to which Marvel characters would get their own movies especially considering that Iron Man was not a natural choice and nowhere near as well known as Spider-Man, Hulk, or the Fantastic Four. Captain America had not been announced yet nor Thor nor the Avengers. We continued to write back and forth.

Ben produced a short six page script entitled Captain America: A Beginning which appears in the blog labeled Emails #1: THERE IS NO TEA!!  I think from this point on, especially after Ben wrote the short script, we were off and running. Finding bits and pieces of dialogue, script or discussion about Cap in my inbox from Ben on a regular basis was often the high point of any day. We dreamed about the era, the challenges, the villain, the clothing, weapons, campaigns - and all the banter became a way of shaping the answer to the central question, what could a Captain America movie be like with almost 70 years of background material to pull from? Both of us knew that an examination of what made Captain America tick was also an investigation into the mechanics of modern myths, storytelling, filmmaking and writing. It wasn't until we were very far along that it began to dawn on us just what our friendly, meandering, banter was producing - a document on redefining myth for the current era.

You may find wedged into the discussion such topics as the exact origin and motivation of Steve Rogers wanting to enlist. What event jump started the scramble to create a Super Soldier Serum? Just how did the Red Skull come into being? How big a role did symbolism play in the fighting of WWII and where did the shield come from? Or Bucky? Was there a Bucky? I would like to think we had pretty exhaustive talks about these and many other issues. I know that we meandered or changed direction quite a few times or came back to revisit an idea we had discarded earlier. So, we both have favorites of our own and each other's.

What resulted was the blog you read now which was created by combining email correspondences and fitting them into post-length sizes. Our temptation to explain or pare down entries was resisted and only minor changes like pulling out family names or contact information kept them from being 100% as originally posted. Spelling errors, sloppy grammar and faulty logic, mostly my own, are preserved as both Ben and I had originally intended. While not written as a blog, once we had decided that there was too much email material to keep to ourselves, arranging the material was a relatively easy task. See for yourself how more than 80 posts comprise this meaty glimpse into the creative process and many posts include exclusive artwork designed to compliment specific entries. Read as we puzzle together fact and fiction onto the cinematic bones of a modern day telling of a story originally set in WWII by comic book pioneers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

The Red. The White. The Blue.

I had the unique opportunity to work as both designer and art director of Annin, the world's oldest and largest flag making company. It was there I met friend and artist Mark McMurray. Part of my enjoyment, especially as a designer, was drawing eight solid hours a day. As a result, my outside cartooning work improved dramatically. My curious mind also thrilled at seeing pieces of history tucked away in the art department files which contained historic designs, letters, purchase orders, drawings, blueprints and more. Annin had designed the flag that flies on the moon and the famous flag at Iwo Jima for example. I also started work on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles around this time which was one reason I reluctantly left that job. A curious up-tick in American themes and depictions of flags show up in my work after this. Annin had been quite a patriotic experience for me and I would recall this as I wrote about Steve Rogers' drive to enlist. I made a point to have an all female welding unit craft the first Cap shield from Pearl Harbor battleship scrap. I had taken several tours of the Annin applique and embroidery departments and the sight of all the work stations filled with foreign women turning out various flags never left me. That is what inspired the inclusion of the welders in my version of the Cap story.

I recalled hearing just a few stories from my own grandfather about WWI. He hardly ever talked about it. No one did. Yet, he had been in France in the midst of mustard gas bombs and had gotten THE flu more than once. Somehow he survived and came home. It wasn't until much later that I would read of the horrific number of dead during 1918-1920 of the Spanish Flu. When working on the Cap emails, I unearthed a poorly accepted rumor that biological warfare was responsible for the deadly flu outbreak. Rumor, maybe. In the fictional tale, the government launches a massive program to create soldiers who are immune to such biological weapons and that is how the Super Soldier Serum came to be, I theorized. It fit the time frame and had the delicious ring of plausibility you need when concocting fictional history.

Certain images kept finding their way into the discussion. My contribution to post #3 entitled Terrible Times Demanding Terrible Sacrifice is a brief outline of what a Captain America movie trailer could be like. Cap frozen in ice was used in the comic series to bridge the Captain America of the Timely Comics and Marvel Comics and was never too far from my imagination. Later I would try to conceptualize it during the final conflict with the Red Skull. Cap's main villain must be defeated and escape. Cap himself must win the battle yet be trapped in ice until he can spring forth in a new era. Some of the conceptual fallout might have been too much to handle for a casual moviegoer. There would be strong depictions of concentration camps. The use of atomic weapons would have horrified Cap and the Russians would not have been viewed by him as potential enemies in waiting but as heroes who sacrificed more than all others, gave blood, heart and soul to defeating the Nazi menace.

Skipping ahead to post #7: Red Skull. Yeah Baby. This is the first post to sport a full color collage and I like the way it came out. Also, in a comment on the post, I lay out the corrupting motivation of the Red Skull and in many ways a lot of comic book villains. Ego. Red Skull was evil. Good guys don't have bright red skeletons for heads. Doctor Doom, Galactus and every Spider-Man villain tried to pull off elaborate, grandiose stunts, coldly delivering invitations for our heroes to try to stop them, narrowly defeated yet always to return again. Red Skull boiled in his hatred of Captain America and his goals of ultimate victory would never be realized as Cap always thwarted him. He would love to crush this man, this wretched American mongrel and at night it is all he can dream about. It wouldn't have taken much at all, a superior gloved hand tightening on Cap's throat. Maybe a minute, only a single minute. Yet the Red Skull does not let his mind rest there. From defeat there is a plan, a brilliant plan fully formed and he sneers to himself. This time... this time things are going to be different. The go for broke audacity of a master villain like Red Skull is what makes Captain America's ability to overcome him a heroic virtue.

I wrote a scene called The Cold which appeared as Emails #28 and it is kind of a trailer. Cap is pursuing the Red Skull through the snow toward their final conflict and he is praying for divine guidance in the middle of a storm. Cap has a dream/vision/memory of discovering skeletal survivors at a concentration camp. The desolation and wail of the train whistle hammers home the need to combat evil without restraint. I really wanted to show Cap defeated, perhaps even inching through the storm about ready to give up. In doing so, I create an opportunity for Cap to choose the heroic path and in essence be willing to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of evil. Along with Captain America: The Beginning, it gave me an itch to think about writing a screenplay based on our ramblings. It is fun to think about even now.

Post #37, among others, is great for a reread. Entitled, 1918 Epidemic and the Super Soldier Serum, Ben and I lay out in pretty inelegant terms what the probable timeline would be for the development of a Super Soldier Serum and where Steve Rogers' involvement would be. This is important because it is the grounding that both a comic book and movie version never had. It cements the relationship between the first war, Cap and the second war. Once this is anchored, many aspects of the conflict between Captain America and Red Skull start to fall into place. You can also see my own hand holding a vial, some cologne, in the collage sketch.

Our movie reviews seemed to be quite popular. We tackled THOR (between post #40 and #41), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (between post #53 and #54), CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER (posted July 25, 2011) and THE AVENGERS (posted May 13, 2012). These were enormous fun to do and Ben and I both wrote our reviews independently of one another allowing some basic points to echo. Story, for both of us, seems to be the important element and character development is the only way to get there. The reviews are a good way for us to keep score with the real world filmmakers on the Marvel characters' major plot points. Our most popular review was for the THOR film. The thunder god sparked our followers to tune in and read not one but two reviews which broke down the sweeping saga. Captain America seems to be at the center, along with Thor and Iron Man of a Marvel movie universe build on classic archetypes. The successful movies will all have a strong story and well defined characters as a solid base.

Lastly for me, I wanted to poke around with The RED SKULL. As we got closer to the end of our previously written emails, it became obvious that neither Ben nor I were going to have the time to devote to writing a screenplay AND Cap was already announced as a Marvel film so it seemed moot. Still, there was an itchiness to tell the tale of Cap defeating the Red Skull. So, I gave it a shot with a series entitled, Red Skull: Endings (Part 1 of 5). I came to realize over the course of our blog that the Red Skull was not just a great villain for Cap but a great villain period. He oozed evil, arrogance, power and corruption with a single minded quest for greatness that strictly put him on top of a short list. I wrote him in many ways to be the opposite of Captain America, vain, greedy, lustful, immoral, and more than willing to sacrifice others to further his goals. These qualities in a living, breathing villain were fantastic for Cap to act as a heroic foil - and without which, Cap's ascension to being a living legend, an icon of hope and freedom, a symbol of purity would be for naught without a master villain to have conflict with. I made the Red Skull stronger, smarter, more cunning, more evil than Cap could handle and it is inevitable that he should triumph soundly over Cap. It is then that Cap assumes his true heroic nature and rises against all odds, all expectations to face his much stronger nemesis in a last battle in the snow.

I would love to say I pulled it off and created a dramatic conclusion with Red Skull: Endings but the drafts needed a lot more work, more input from Ben's creative influence, and stronger editing. I think perhaps the action could have been compressed into one long scene or two smaller ones. Weak plot elements needed to be dropped or pumped up. The Red Skull's final words and actions also needed to be cranked up into something powerful and memorable. This is his humiliating defeat after all. Ideally, that is what would have happened. The first draft would have gone to a second, a third, etc. and Cap would have become more heroic in the process as well as a more tragic figure. He will not be around to understand or enjoy his victory. It was fun to write though. Fun indeed.

In the past year, my wife and I, along with our dog and a mountain of books, furniture and clothing have moved to New Mexico from central New York and it is beautiful here. Stunning. I have had some time to write and draw but have started teaching a college level drawing class (Drawing For Comic Books) which is an exciting first for me. I've had a couple of pieces of artwork hanging at a local gallery show too which is something else I have never been involved in. Thanks to all of you for reading this blog. Ben and I tried to blend as much research and historical fact as we could into the characters to make them breathe. The blog stands as a great testament to our efforts and shortcomings in developing these characters. Of course Captain America is never too far from my thoughts...

Liberty, Justice & Freedom,
2/2/2013 - New Mexico

Making it real with a little help from my friends
by Ben Alpi

Cap could totally take the world! But he wouldn't because he's not that kind of guy.

Holy Toledo! Has it been two years?! I miss working on this blog quite a lot, mostly because of the collaboration and exchanging of ideas with a troublemaker like Rick Arthur. Don't tell him I said this, but he's one of the most creative people I know and his passion for story and character is unmatched. I also miss the blog since it's so forward-looking. Talking to Rick and writing these emails was and is still truly inspiring. The long chats we had about character, storytelling, and structure mostly in relation to films, comic books, and literature were not daydreamy musings, but deep discussions about applying what we spoke about. I learned a lot from him and his encouragement helped me push forward to write and direct my first short film, Silver Lining. That production played on television in both the US and Canada and got distribution with Ouat Media in Toronto. From there I became second unit director on Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II and got to work with some amazing people including John Carrigan who you'll read about later.

After several more projects including the blog, I recently directed my second short film, Cowboy Creed. I’ve loved Westerns since I was very young—I mean horses, guns, and fisticuffs, where can you go wrong?! My siblings and I grew up watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as well as slightly lesser known Spaghetti Westerns like Django. (It was too funny watching Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained—complete with a special appearance by the original Django, Franco Nero.) For Creed, one of my main objectives in writing was to incorporate what Rick and I had been talking about in the last few years—including what we’ve written in this blog. Westerns are well and truly America’s myth, and since I happen to live in the area where many Westerns have been made, it was the perfect project. Cowboy Creed is a short about Phineas Creed, a young cowboy trying to find his place in a post-Gold Rush world. When the international criminal “Limey” kidnaps his ladylove Miss Graves, Phineas faces the most harrowing showdown of his life. The script actually began more as an action scene. From that, similar to how Rick and I worked on Cap, I started researching the time period and began developing not only a more involved short, but also the groundwork for a feature-length film. The short script actually expanded and contracted a few times as I tried to find the right balance to encapsulate the new, broader tapestry I developed but keep it to 10 minutes. (And keep the budget down!) Rick kindly read one of these drafts and gave notes and even agreed to do pre-production concept sketches for the film. Given how busy he is I was surprised and doubly glad to be working with him again—an artist with genuine professionalism in addition to talent and skill. As anyone who has read this blog knows, we spoke at length about the underpinnings of the story. Over the last 100 years, American culture especially has marched slowly but steadily toward the anti-hero. A lot of care goes into the creation of villains because we need a complex one to keep us interested and make us believe he or she is a challenge to the hero. This quest sometimes leads to a much more interesting character—perhaps an even more likable character. Doctor Doom for instance is really only looking out for the good of his precious Latverians, right? Magneto is really only trying to protect his fellow mutants, right? These villains need a reason to do evil things and over time audiences have become increasingly sympathetic, so sympathetic that they start to side with them more than ‘droll’ heroes. What is good? What is evil? Today the difference is no longer a matter of black and white hats. We have gone from Flash Gordon, beacon of good in the universe to Dexter, serial killer who tries to keep his murders limited to criminals. As tantalizing the thought of attempting to cast a villain as a hero may be, we should not call Dexter a hero. The concept targets the chinks in our armor, our dark fantasies of revenge on those who do wrong. Dexter leaves behind the ideals of societal justice and replaces it with a kind of personal perversion of justice. My intent is to knock the pendulum in the opposite direction. I don’t think audiences will believe a character is all-good with no dark side. We all have one of those. But, I think we still need someone to look up to. As interesting a show like Dexter is, he is not someone to emulate. He is not someone who is standing up to adversity and changing the course of history for the oppressed. I sought to create a hero who is as complex as a villain and who is still a hero worth emulating. Funny enough, as I worked towards this goal, the feedback I was getting about the script was the villain wasn’t complex enough. Oops! I put my nose to the grindstone and kept at it until “Limey” was the fully formed character he has to be. I was making edits to the script right up until filming in December 2011—which was partly funded by Kickstarter Backers from the US and UK. Thanks again to them and our other donors! We had a fantastic crew and an amazing cast led by Kendall Wells as “Phineas”, John Carrigan as “Thomas Michael ‘Limey’ Lyme” (whom I mentioned before), Tara Platt as “Miss Graves,” and Anthony De Longis as “Sheriff Eli Graves.” The film also stars Leandro Cano as “Rook,” and Wayne Webb as “Bishop.” I’m currently submitting the film to festivals internationally and we’ve shown the film in private screenings now in Hollywood and near London (with the help of John Carrigan.) The feedback has been very positive. In fact, viewers so far have been surprised at the high level of polish and refinement the project has, despite being a short—nicknaming it a “mini epic.” That’s great to hear and is a credit to all those who have helped make this film possible. I hope this story and these characters will continue and I get to direct a heroic feature film with them. To keep up-to-date on Cowboy Creed-related happenings, keep a look out on

Along with the film, I’ve been busy in a lot of divergent areas and in the middle of it all, my girlfriend Dr. Jyotika Virmani and I were married in the Spring of 2012. Jyotika has also been a great inspiration and is a great help as a producer on Cowboy Creed. She happens to be an avid reader of classic literature and avid watcher of film, which is great. (And she puts up with my constant working on film!) She is also an expert in tropical storms and maintains an excellent blog during hurricane season here:

What’s next then?!

I’m glad you asked! I’m currently working on a few scripts ranging from sci fi to fantasy to drama. It’s a wonderfully electric time and I couldn’t be happier plugging away at new ideas. This includes collaborations with friend Tom Mercer as well as my brother Bob on two winning scripts we will complete this year. Also, I hope to direct another short, this time a mind-bender—more details to come of course. I do wish I still had time to work on the blog here and explore mythic storytelling all the more. Perhaps we should do something bi-monthly? Please pipe in down in the comments and let Rick and I know what you think! As always, thanks for reading folks! And hold high those ideals of life, liberty, and happiness. That’s what Cap would do!

02/04/13 - Somewhere over the Atlantic